Restaurants play a bigger role in the diets of American children and families now than ever before. And if they use their influence to promote health, they will feed the potential of the next generation. 

It’s a great time for the restaurant industry. This year’s sales are projected to hit $863 billion, a record high. The number of meals eaten outside the home now surpasses those prepared at home. American consumers have a seemingly insatiable demand for meals and snacks that are convenient, affordable, and that taste great. New brands and products have proliferated in response, knowing that our on-demand culture is most likely here to stay.

The outlook for our collective health is not as rosy. This cultural shift toward quick, convenient dining is fueling a growing epidemic of obesity and chronic disease that threatens the long-term health and vitality of the next generation. Nearly 40 percent of adults and 18.5 percent of children ages 2–19 in the U.S. live with obesity. In addition to obesity, poor diet can lead to inflammation, high cholesterol, and insulin resistance, the triggers for a growing number of chronic diseases including heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer.

If this message seems like old news, that’s because it is. In 2010, when our nonprofit, Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA), was founded to work with the private sector to transform the food supply, public consciousness on the link between diet, obesity, and chronic disease began to grow. The consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry was the first to take action. Major fortune 500 companies like Mars and PepsiCo reformulated their products and removed 6 trillion calories from the marketplace. Others shifted marketing, product development, and M&A dollars toward healthier options or rethought their pricing strategies. These changes were met with a positive reception from consumers and public health advocates alike.

Some of these companies continue to reap the rewards of their actions, while others are still finding their way in this radically new environment. Another subset, however, waited too long and are struggling to catch up to the consumer.

Convenience stores are one industry that saw the need for repositioning in light of new insights and changing preferences. Formerly strongholds of “Cokes and smokes,” convenience stores have increased revenue by offering more better-for-you products. Bottled water, nuts, healthy prepared items, and fresh fruit are more ubiquitous than they have ever been, and consumers are responding with enthusiasm.

But the average American continues to eat too much sugar, salt, and fat, and not nearly enough nutrient-dense vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains needed for optimum health. This is part biology and part habit. Our biology makes us crave calorie-dense foods, and habits and behaviors perpetuate their consumption. Our habits weren’t formed in a vacuum; they are a product of a food culture dominated by companies that celebrate, showcase, and market the heck out of foods that trigger our base instincts. There is plenty of fuel on this fire.

At a recent PHA Summit, a representative from a major restaurant chain asked why health couldn’t be a “pre-competitive issue” for the industry, and we agree. As the industry continues to grow and thrive, restaurants have an opportunity to become a major force in creating health for their consumers.

Change doesn’t have to mean upending the business model, but committing to a clear set of objectives that lead to improvement and generate profit. This is not only feasible, but also a reasonable response to the public health crisis and the growing demand for more and better options, especially among millennials and Gen Z.

We at PHA have learned much over the last 10 years, including that the status quo can be one of the biggest risks a business can take. A growing number of fast-casual chains and even a few new quick-serve restaurants are rising up to satisfy the desire for better for you. They know well that convenience and health are not mutually exclusive objectives—they are the sweet spot for long-term success. Unfortunately, those companies are not yet able to reach vast swaths of the American public. For those that do, we are here to help you seize the opportunity.   

Nancy E. Roman is chief executive officer and Paula E. Reichel is chief of staff for Partnership for a Healthier America.

Health & Wellness, Outside Insights, Story