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Low-calorie fast foods make better business, healthier customers

Fast food and other chain restaurants that offer low-calorie menu increase their amount of customer traffic and profits.
Fast food and other chain restaurants that offer low-calorie menu increase their amount of customer traffic and profits.
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Not only are McDonald's yogurt parfait, Burger King's veggie burger and other low-calorie fast food items better for customers' health, they also may be highly profitable.

According to a new study from the Hudson Institute, a non-profit policy research organization, fast food and sit-down restaurant chains that expanded their low-calorie offerings also ramped up their income.

"The findings of this study clearly demonstrate that between 2006 and 2011 lower-calorie foods and beverages were the key growth engine for the restaurants studied," the report says.

Researchers analyzed the sales and customer traffic at 21 major chain restaurants, including Applebee's, Olive Garden, Taco Bell and KFC, and determined places that served and continually expanded their options for low-calorie foods also increased their business.

This study defined low-calorie as an entree (salads, sandwiches, etc.) that is less than 500 calories; a side dish, appetizer or dessert that was less than 150 calories; and a beverage that was less than 50 calories for an 8 ounce serving.

To put these numbers in perspective, main dishes at McDonald's that have less than 500 calories include the Southern Style Crispy Chicken Sandwich, the Double Cheeseburger and a six-piece Chicken McNugget serving -- so these may be "low" in calories but not high in overall nutritional quality.

Still, they're a step in the right direction according to the study "Lower Calorie Foods: It's Just Good For Business." Researchers conclude that healthier options do correlate to profitability, and if restaurant chains see more proof of that, they likely will expand their offering and marketing of low-calorie items.

"Restaurant chains now have incentive to lower their calorie footprints to enhance their performance and to help address high obesity rates," the report concludes.

In South L.A., about 33 percent of adults are obese according to L.A. County health officials. Over the last 30 years across the country, childhood obesity has doubled while adolescent obesity as tripled, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

South L.A. has so many fast food restaurants that in 2011, city officials banned new chains from setting up shop in the area. Community organizations are trying to attract more grocery stores and eateries with healthier options, but in the meantime, encouraging low-calorie options at existing fast food chains may be a step in the right direction.