Ready for a Fast-Food Workout?

In an effort to boost sales and defuse criticism, food giants are encouraging their customers to eat better and exercise more

By Pallavi Gogoi

Wanna lose weight? Go buy that tub of fried chicken from KFC or the pizza you've been craving from Pizza Hut. No kidding! Both fast food chains are owned by Yum! Brands (YUM ), which is offering a free month's membership at any of Bally Total Fitness' 400 health clubs nationwide to customers who place a food order through the end of January, 2005.

"Yum has tremendous reach, and we all love fast food -- what better way to burn it off than at Bally's?" asks Jonathan Harris, vice-president for corporate development at Bally Total Fitness (BFT ). Of course, to burn off the 300-odd calories in a serving of KFC's Original Recipe Chicken or a slice of regular pizza you would have to jog at least an hour on a treadmill.


  This is the latest twist in food companies' response to the national debate on obesity (see BW Online, 10/26/04, "The Food Giants Go on a Diet"). In an effort to tie in the corporate goals of growth and increasing shareholder value while also helping America fight its girth, food companies are coming up with clever solutions -- ones that don't necessarily mean selling less food.

Other examples of the trend: General Mills (GIS ), owner of Betty Crocker and Pillsbury, has planned menus around its meals and snacks that will help the typical consumer lose 10 pounds in 10 weeks. Kraft (KFT ) tells consumers that if they eat Post cereal they can lose 10 pounds. And Pepsico (PEP ) has a Smart Spot symbol so those who buy Quaker, Tropicana, or some of its other products will know that these are "healthy" foods.

Food and beverage giants have faced a slew of criticism ever since an eye-opening 2001 U.S. Surgeon General's report said 61% of American adults and 13% of children were overweight or obese. Critics put the blame squarely on the shoulders of McDonald's (MCD ), Coca-Cola (KO ), and their brethren for selling fat-loaded fries, burgers, and chips, and sugar-heavy cookies and soda, and they've called on those outfits to accept responsibility for helping to make America fat.

After initially brushing away such criticism, these corporate giants finally responded by encouraging Americans to exercise as part of a healthier lifestyle. In the past two years, McDonald's and Coca-Cola have handed out pedometers to consumers, and Kraft has started sponsoring an after-school health and wellness program that will be offered at Boys & Girls Clubs.


  Now the approach is gaining momentum because companies think it can boost sales while also promoting good health. Yum expects the promise of a free four-week workout to lure additional customers to its 18,000 U.S. restaurants. And starting in November, Kraft began promoting a study conducted by James Rippe, a Tufts University medical school professor, which showed that subjects who replaced two meals a day with Post Healthy Classic cereal lost 10 pounds over 24 weeks. Of course, critics quickly point out that people taking part also reduced their overall calorie intake, so they would have lost weight with any diet, Post or no Post.

On Dec. 21, General Mills launched a weight-management program of its own, one that it's counting on to increase sales of Cheerios, Yoplait, and Betty Crocker products. The company promises consumers that they'll lose 10 pounds in 10 weeks with its suggested menus. Consumers can log on to a special Web site,, to register for customized meal plans, all of which contain General Mills products, and to receive coupons and exercise and tips on healthy living.

"We kept in mind that the key is a balanced diet that includes vegetables, whole grains, and lower-fat proteins," says Timothy Crimmins, General Mills' vice-president for health, safety, and environment and the doctor who designed the menus.

Critics aren't impressed. They claim the campaigns are designed to deflect attention from sugar and fat content while spurring customers to buy more, perhaps leading to further weight gain. "I'm endlessly astonished and awestruck at the ingenious level of marketing that goes into selling products," says Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University and the author of Food Politics.


  Still, even Nestle believes that encouraging customers of KFC and Pizza Hut to hit the gym is a terrific idea. And to be fair, Yum Brands has added healthier fare to its menu: KFC has a nonfried Tender Roast Sandwich or Tender Roast Meal with a side of long-grain rice and Southern-style green beans.

Taco Bell will substitute its Fiesta Salsa for cheese and sauce if a customer asks for it. Pizza Hut has a new pizza with 25% less fat than its regular version. And many other food companies are reducing saturated fat and increasing menu choices. General Mills recently promised that all its cereal lines would soon contain only whole grains.

Still, burning more calories can't hurt. So maybe it's time to grab an application for a free Bally membership -- along with your Tender Roast sandwich.

Gogoi is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York

Edited by Thane Peterson

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