Dieting, Research
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Chain Restaurant “Diet” Menus: Serving Up Guilt with a Side of Sin

Guilt is frequently linked to food in a dysfunctional way and is founded in a belief system that gives food and eating a moral value. Notably, Paul Rozin et al.’s (1999) landmark food psychology study found that compared to Japanese and European subjects, Americans restricted their diets the most, feeling the most guilt and dissatisfaction. The moral construct of food consumption is an important part of American food culture and is what Paul Campos refers to as “orthodox diet theology” (2004: 75). Using this theology, some foods are deemed good, while others are bad, and thus guilt-inducing.

The themes of guilt and morality are often used to sell entrees at chain restaurants, usually dishes that are considered “healthy” or low-calorie options. Patrons are encouraged to order from “diet” menus, which claim to offer dishes that make eating out a guilt-free experience.

Among 200 menu options (some of which contain more than 1,000 calories), The Cheesecake Factory launched the “SkinnyLicious® Menu” in 2011, which Bruce Horowitz in USA Today argues was a result of “pressure from calorie counters, advocacy groups and party poopers” (Horovitz).

At Applebee’s (a chain currently refreshing their image and at least on surface level improving their food—and did you know Applebee’s sells the most steak of all chains in the bar and grill category?), eating out and dieting explicitly coexist, as diners can watch their “points” by ordering from the Weight Watchers® menu. Applebee’s promotes these diet options with the tagline, “Eating right never tasted so good,” insinuating that eating healthfully does not taste good.

Screenshot of Applebee’s Weight Watcher’s Menu

While Chili’s used to offer “Guiltless Grill” options that “give you more choices for your healthy lifestyle,” the chain now serves “Lighter Choices” that are featured on Healthy Dining Finder (a pretty decent tool if you do eat out frequently and are working to maintain or lose weight), containing not more than 750 calories, 25 grams fat, and 8 grams saturated fat. Chili’s is one of several chains to utilize the concept of lightness in diet menu marketing, as consumers seek lighter bodies through dieting.

Red Lobster Lighthouse Menu

Red Lobster also endorses lightness, offering the “Lighthouse Menu,” a title alluding to not only the pursuit of physical lightness, but also the promise that ordering diet foods is “safe” and can guide a dieter safely into port. Similar to Applebee’s, Red Lobster promotes these “Lighthouse” options with the tagline, “Smart choices never tasted so good,” again reinforcing the belief that healthy eating is inherently not a tasty experience. Ironically, Red Lobster also exploits health concerns to the chain’s advantage, such as a section titled, Seafood and Health, which promotes seafood as a low-fat, high-protein option, rich in omega-3 fatty acids, a type of fat that has garnered significant fame. (In the perfectly titled BBC News Magazine article, “The Cult of Omega-3,” Brendan O’Neill explores whether they are as magical as the media have led us to believe.)

Some restaurants take another approach, marketing indulgence as sinful, but enjoyable. For example, at Outback Steakhouse, one can order Sydney’s Sinful Sundae®. By offering diet menus and using language that makes eating out seem like a guilt-ridden activity, patrons begin to feel guilty about eating in general.

In fact, restaurant diet menus prey upon the psychological insecurities of dieters and those with eating disorders, as revealed in a study by psychologists Vivian M.M. Gonzalez and Kelly M. Vitousek of the University of Hawaii. The researchers found that categorizing food as good or bad leads to guilt and fear with eating. The study found that:

Restrained individuals, [those who diet or have an eating disorder] categorize foods according to whether they are ‘guilt inducing’ versus ‘guilt free’ (2003: 156).

When participants were asked to rate foods, the results for restrained individuals showed a positive correlation between increased guilt and fear and “each perceived level of fatteningness” (2003: 160).

These results inform the discussion of “diet” options on chain restaurant menus. If an item is not preceded by the words lean or healthy or light, consumers fear a food must be a “bad” food, making the consumer who eats it bad as well. Ironically, while these diet menus exist to provide “healthy choices” to diners, they may actually complicate consumers’ ability to discern quality food choices or to “indulge” without emotional ramifications, such as guilt.


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