Susan Arendt, an Iowa State University professor in hospitality management, has co-authored several studies on what makes people choose to eat healthy at casual dining restaurants. Photo by Ryan Riley.

Why customers choose to eat healthy at restaurants

A person’s decision to choose healthful foods when eating at a casual dining restaurant is the result of complicated interactions between socio-demographic, psychological, and environmental factors.

But past exposure to a certain food also affects a customer’s decision to eat healthy, according to a new study co-authored by an Iowa State University professor and two former doctoral students.

“Female customers and customers who had eaten healthful low-fat or low-calorie menu items in the past had more positive attitudes and behavioral intentions toward those menu items,” the researchers found. “Attitudes toward taste and healthfulness, and past experience consuming those menu items, were significant contributors in forming behavioral intentions.”

Healthy eating is of growing interest as the nation’s obesity rate continues to rise, and people eat out more — which is associated with large portion sizes and high caloric intake. More than one-third of U.S. adults, or about 78.6 million, are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Women more likely to choose healthful foods

Susan Wohlsdorf Arendt, an Iowa State professor in hospitality management, recently co-authored the study with former doctoral students Jinhyun Jun and Juhee Kang looking at the role of attitude, gender, and past experience in a customer’s decision to choose healthful foods at restaurants.

Researchers found that gender and past experience make a significant difference when choosing healthful foods. The study, published this spring in the Journal of Foodservice Business Research, analyzed survey responses from 1,383 students, faculty members, staff, and alumni.

“Specifically, females had more favorable attitudes toward both taste and healthfulness of those menu items and greater behavioral intentions than men,” the study stated, referring to the likelihood of a person choosing the healthful food.

The study is the latest in the line of research looking at why customers choose healthful foods at restaurants. While all three researchers hail from Iowa State, Jun is now an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, while Kang is now an assistant professor at the University of Central Florida.

“In particular, attitudes toward healthfulness had the greatest impact on behavioral intentions,” the researchers found.

Temptations get in the way

A previous study co-authored by Jun and Arendt — who has a background and expertise in dietetics and food safety — provides practical implications to encourage people to select healthful menu items at casual dining restaurants.

Ultimately, the study revealed that a customer’s choice of a healthful item on the menu was better predicted by people’s willingness, rather than their intentions. In other words, people can intend to eat healthful foods, but can be swayed by temptation or suggestion.

“People are likely to choose low-calorie restaurant menu items not only by conscious intent but also through reactive responses to situational factors (such as servers’ recommendations),” the researchers found. “Although people may plan to eat healthy when dining out, some end up choosing high-calorie menu items because of various situational factors (such as tempting unhealthful menu items).”

Findings of that study, which analyzed 744 survey responses, were published in February by the International Journal of Hospitality Management. They indicate that low-calorie menu item selection at restaurants results from an intentional decision-making process and also from reactive decision-making.

Healthy lifestyle inspires low-fat, low-calorie diet

The desire to be healthy can lead a person to develop hedonic, or pleasurable, expectations about low-fat, low-calorie, or unsweetened foods.

“Health value was the key element that inspired customer interest in healthy eating and aroused hedonic and positive outcome expectations, which in turn enhanced intentions to purchase healthy food items,” stated a third study by Kang, Jun, and Arendt.

That study, published last year in the International Journal of Hospitality Management, advises restaurant managers to establish creative marketing strategies to motivate customer interest in healthful menu items and emphasize benefits of their healthful food items. Such strategies could both create sales and satisfy customer needs.

“For health-conscious customers, providing nutritional information is more important than describing the taste of the healthy menu item, because their focus is health,” the researchers found.

Customers usually have certain expectations of a food item before they taste it, according to the study of 1,188 customers who had consumed healthful menu items at casual dining restaurants. To maintain a healthy lifestyle, some customers are likely to choose healthy menu items that they find less tasty than other menu options.

“Customers who value a healthy lifestyle are more likely to eat a healthy diet and find the foods in these diets enjoyable, which may directly influence their acceptance of these foods,” the researchers found. “As a result, these customers develop positive hedonic expectations (the expectation of liking foods) toward healthy menu options while other customers do not.”