Dec. 29, 2009 -- Just in time for the post-holiday gorge in front of the TV, Taco Bell is unleashing a weight loss advertisement campaign that is the first to compete with Subway's Jared Fogle.
Meet Christine: A woman who lost 54 pounds in two years by choosing the low-fat "Fresco" menu items at Taco Bell in place of her old daily fast food choices.
The counterintuitive and controversial pitch that fast food can be good for weight loss won Subway billions of dollars over its competitors in 2000. The before and after footage of Fogle, who lost 245 pounds in a year, boosted Subway's per store sales growth to seven times the industry average in 2000 and nearly doubled their previous year's sales, according to "Market Busters: 40 Strategic Moves That Drive Exceptional Business Growth," published by the Harvard Business School Press.
But dieticians are on the fence about whether these campaigns ultimately hurt or help a nation where more than a third of meals are eaten in restaurants and more than a third of the population is obese.
"What I like is the availability of fast food items that are improved. Perfect is the enemy of good, and these offerings are pretty good," said Dr. David Katz, director of Medical Studies in Public Health at Yale University. But, "I also suspect that most people hoping to 'be' Christine will be very disappointed, just as most Jared wannabes are. These are likely people who made a dramatic commitment to lifestyle change, and simply relied on a particular source of convenience food as part of their strategy. That doesn't make that source of convenience food the solution!"
Connie Diekman, a registered dietician and director of nutrition at Washington University in St Louis, pointed out that "fast food dining is a part of many people's lives, so having options that are healthier is very important -- the ads will hopefully make it clear that consumers or customers have choices, but they must make the healthier choices."
Taco Bell picked up on that reality in the ads for the Drive-Thru Diet menu. "When I decided to trim down, I knew I had to be realistic with myself," Christine said in the ads. "I didn't want to cut out my fast food, so I started choosing Fresco items from the Drive-Thru Diet menu. These results aren't typical, but for me, they are fantastic."
A host of caveats as long as some drug ads follow her story: Christine's weight loss was "exceptional" according to the commercials, her taco bell trips were part of a larger effort to cut calories down to 1250 a day, and the Taco Bell Drive Thru Diet shouldn't be considered a diet.
Yet, some who study the fast food industry say such healthy choices campaigns can't undo the harm of the unhealthy campaigns.
"This is preposterous. This is the same Taco Bell that has the Volcano Nachos (almost 1,000 calories), that boasts about the 1/2 pound cheesy potato burrito, that has systematically encouraged people to eat between meals with their 4th meal campaign," said Kelly D. Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.
Diet Experts Debate the Idea of Healthy Fast Food
"Sure, these restaurants try to look good by introducing a few healthier items, but when one considers what and how they market and what they offer incentives to buy (with package meals), the picture is not a positive one," said Brownell.
Right or wrong, diet and public health experts agree Taco Bell's new campaign will likely seriously influence Americans who spend a great deal on fast food from their cars each year.
"The entire restaurant industry is $390 billion a year, fast food is $230 billion of that," said Tom Wagner, vice president of Consumer Insights for Taco Bell.
Although the line of "Fresco" burritos and tacos has existed for six years, the upcoming weeks will be the first time the majority of Taco Bell customers will see the low fat options on the menu.
Moving Healthy to Drive-Thru Reaches Millions
"They've been on the menu for several years, but people had to look for it inside," said Ruth Carey, a dietician and spokeswoman for the Taco Bell Drive-Thru Diet menu.
Along with Christine, Taco Bell will move the Fresco option -- swapping cheese and high-fat sauce for salsa -- out to the drive-thru and package it in the Drive-Thru Diet menu.
"Seventy percent of business is on the drive-thru," explained Wagner.
Dieticians reached by ABCNews.com thought the items on the Taco Bell Drive-Thru Diet menu had a good handle on calories and fat, but had pitfalls in terms of salt and nutritional value.
But Are the Healthy Choices Even Healthy?
Bonnie Taub-Dix, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, pointed out that the Fresco Crunchy Taco, for example, "barely has protein" and that "half of the calories in that meal are coming from fat. If someone had this for lunch alone, I'd say it's an inadequate lunch."
She was happy with the protein in the Fresco Burrito Supreme With Chicken, but not the salt.
"The fat of that one is 70 out of the 340 calories," said Taub-Dix. "If you look at the sodium content, it's 1,410 milligrams, which is really about what you need for the whole day."
Carey, who is also a sports nutritionist with the NBA alongside her work with Taco Bell, agreed that the salt content was high.
"Taco Bell is aware that these Fresco items [contain] higher sodium than other items, and they're trying to find ways to lower the sodium and maintaining the taste," said Carey. But, she added, "any of those items can fit in moderation -- be aware that the rest of your day needs to have meals in lower sodium."
Yet, some dieticians don't think those types of caveats will translate to the drive-thru on a busy day, or in the noise of other fast food commercials and marketing.
"Yes, [Christine] said it took her two years and yes, she said her results were not typical, but I bet many people can't recall hearing that the first time they see or hear this spot," said Dr. Stephen Cook, of Golisano Children's Hospital at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York.
"There really shouldn't be a forbidden food, but it's tough for human nature to think in a moderate fashion when our perception of what is a normal serving size of a meal is lost in today's market place."