Restaurants lighten up on menus

For the millions of Americans who entered 2008 a bit flabbier — and made that perennial resolution to shed poundage — some of the most familiar eateries have an alluring pitch for the new year: Eat, drink and be lighter.

That sounds contradictory, but for big restaurant chains, it's all about customer counts. January is rough for the $558 billion industry as people cope with holiday burnout, credit card bloat and body flab.

Starbucks sbux is hyping "Skinny" lattes. Jack in the Box jbx launched low-cal chicken strips. Cheesecake Factory cake rolled out light salads. Applebee's says Weight Watchers menu sales could jump 8%. Panera Bread pnra is selling half-sandwich and half-salad combos. Sonic's sonc fat-free Double Berry Smoothies are new.

Even Taco Bell's yum added low-cal stuff. "There's a battle of the bulge after the holidays," says Tom Wagner, vice president of consumer insights. "We don't want people eating at home. We want them to eat at Taco Bell."

Will they buy it? "We're entering the age of well-being," says Linda Eatherton, who oversees Ketchum Communications' global food and nutrition practice. "Health is the new wealth."

But "lighter" items may do more harm than good, says Kelly Brownell, director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders. "The majority of what the fast-food chains sell is high in sugar, fat and calories," he says, and lighter items actually rarely are bought.

On tap for a "lighter" January:

•Starbucks. The coffee chain has big plans to roll out "lighter" products in 2008, says Michelle Gass, senior vice president of global products.

This month's are Skinny lattes and mochas, 90 calories because they're made with non-fat milk, sugar-free syrup and no whip. "A latte is not a big indulgence when it's only 90 calories," Gass says. At lunch, Starbucks is introducing 330-calorie Chicken Bruschetta sandwiches.

•Taco Bell. The chain is rolling out a Fresco Menu with nine items that each have less than 9 grams of fat. Most of them replace cheese and sauce with salsa. "If there's ever been an opportunity to put out a menu with more healthful benefits, it's now," Wagner says.

•Jack in the Box. The new offering is $3.99 Grilled Chicken Strips: four strips at 320 calories. "This is the time of year our guests search out healthier alternatives," says Tammy Bailey, head of menu marketing.

•Cheesecake Factory. The casual-dining chain recently added five Weight Management salads (less than 590 calories each). It also rolled out 10 "small" entree salads at $6.95 to $8.95, says Howard Gordon, marketing chief.

To aid weight-and-budget-conscious diners, servers are reminding folks it's OK for two people to split one entree.