Food Writer's Diary
Resolutions with staying power

Resolutions with staying power

I used to think of joining a gym at this time of year. It was never a resolution, per se; I go out of my way not to make New Year’s resolutions, because it doesn’t seem like a sincere act. Change and self-improvement are ongoing processes, and just because a new year is starting doesn’t mean my nature is suddenly going to change.

But I suppose I’m as susceptible to social mores and human nature as anyone else. Like many American consumers, I find myself, consciously or otherwise, eating light and inexpensive lunches at the beginning of the week and then splurging on something spendy and fattening on Friday.

And so I guess that I’m also susceptible to the odor of change in the air as December becomes January, and I look down at my bulging waistline and think maybe I ought to consider doing something about it.

But joining a gym in early January is lame. Gyms in January are crowded with people suddenly eager to spin or Stairmaster or Ellipitcal their way to a happier, healthier more beautiful self, only to tire of the whole thing before it’s time to eat those chocolate treats on Valentine’s Day.

So I decide to wait to invest in that gym membership, maybe until March.

And then I forget to do it.

A couple of years ago I tried to research when the resolution-making hordes would clear out of the gym so I could join in peace. I called some gyms to ask when they normally quieted down after New Year’s. They wouldn’t tell me. I think I might have even hurt their feelings, implying that their new customers weren’t going to stick around, which most of them weren’t. Of course they weren’t. Everyone knows that people don’t keep their New Year’s resolutions. And back when I did go to the gym the brief influx of New Year’s treadmill jockeys was a normal phenomenon.

Then, when working on this story about restaurants adding lighter items to their menus — something that happens every year — I came across this research from the University of Scranton. It not only indicates that losing weight is the most popular resolution among Americans — no surprise there — but that 64 percent of people who make resolutions keep them into February, and that 46 percent of them keep them into July.

If most of those longer-kept resolutions were the weight loss ones we’d be seeing a precipitous drop in our obesity levels, and we’re not seeing that. So maybe most of them are the be-more-organized or enjoy-life-to-the-fullest types of resolutions. Or maybe even the ones to quit smoking.

Still, I found it interesting that many of the lower-calorie menu items introduced this year weren’t limited-time offerings, but permanent additions to the menus, as if the restaurants themselves had resolved to broaden their menu offerings permanently with lighter food.

When I was discussing that story with my colleagues last week, they wondered if those lower-calorie items actually sold, and it’s a good question. McDonald’s has said of their 290-calorie, relatively high-fiber fruit and maple oatmeal, introduced around New Year’s Day of 2011, that it outperformed their expectations, but they’ve never told us what their expectations were.

“They’re doing very well,” is a common response to that question when I ask chain executives how low-calorie restaurants are doing, but they invoke the privilege of trade secrets if I ask them to go into further detail.

I’ve noticed that Taco Bell doesn’t have a problem letting us know that they’ve sold over $1 billion in Doritos Locos Tacos, however.

But introducing these new better-for-you items as permanent menu additions indicates that something’s going right. I don’t know whether it’s PR, a move to eliminate the veto vote from the relatively few customers who don’t just say they’ll order more healthful items but actually do it, or a response to actual consumer behavior, but it’s an interesting phenomenon, regardless. 

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