The research firm Scarborough, a joint venture of the ratings barons Arbitron Inc. and The Nielsen Company, has profiled healthy consumers and then peeked into their dining habits.


It found that health-conscious consumers were dining at the same fast food outlets as the rest of us — just not in quite as great numbers. But pretty close.

Scarborough attributes this to the success of “healthy menu options,” which the consumers researchers say have caught on at what they call quick service restaurants.

For example, Scarborough found that while 43 percent of all adults in the U.S. have patronized McDonald’s in the last 30 days, so too have 36 percent of all health-conscious consumers.

Like Arbitron and Nielson, Scarborough reaches its conclusions not so much on limited survey research, but by mining massive amounts of data.  In this study, that included data on 210,000 adults over 18 years of age involving a wide variety of lifestyle, shopping and demographic categories.

Starbucks, Arby’s, Chipoltie, Chick-fil-A, Burger King, Taco Bell, Parnell Bread, Wendy’s, Subway and McDonald’s are all among the quick service restaurants that were visited in the last 30 days by at least 10 percent of the nation’s health-conscious consumers.

Scarborough defines health-conscious consumers by their habits, namely gym memberships, and preferences for buying local and organic foods. The consumer research company says 21 million Americans, about nine percent of the population, fit this description of health-conscious consumers.

Menus at quick serve restaurants have changed dramatically, the researchers say. Salads, wraps and smoothies have become ever more common fare at fast food establishments once known only for their hamburgers.  

In total, Scarborough says 74 percent of health-conscious consumers have visited a fast food restaurant for lunch in the last 30 days. In tracking the top 25 quick service restaurants, researchers found that the menu choices of health-conscious consumers were not much different than the food items selected by all adult consumers.

According to Scarborough, health-conscious consumers who ate lunch at a fast food outlet in the past 30 days were more likely to be female (58 percent) and college-educated (66 percent). Most (61 percent) are married and 41 percent have one or more children under age 17.  They are also more likely to have household incomes of $100,000 or more, compared with other fast food diners.

Scarborough also found that health-conscious consumers are 86 percent more likely to be runners or joggers, 78 percent more likely to be cyclists and 60 percent more likely to be swimmers. Nearly half (44 percent) do volunteer work.

Arbitron’s Alisa Joseph says the Scarborough study “reflects the enormous shift in the quick service restaurants’ initiative toward healthier menu options and branding.”

During the recent recession and through continued weak job and housing markets, several top fast food chains have continued to experience growth by adding healthier fare to their menus.

Scarborough’s marketing data probably won’t be enough to cause fast food critics to go away.   McDonald’s, which always seems to be under attack somewhere in its 119-country empire, is currently under fire for its locations in 22 U.S. hospitals.

The consumer group, Corporate Accountability International, objects because it says the Golden Arches are “the world’s most recognized junk food brand.”

Or, the Scarborough study suggests, maybe just a quick place to get a smoothie.

  • Michael Bulger

    How can this study be used to draw the conclusion that “health-concious” consumers are being drawn in by menu changes?
    The study doesn’t provide any historical data. It says that 36% of such consumers have visited a McDonald’s in the past 30 days, but it provides no evidence that this is an increase from the past. For all we know from the data presented this could be the same percentage as ten years ago.

  • I visited McDonalds a while ago and asked them for a Garden Salad. It was a plain salad that was on their menu. The guy looked very confused then had to ask his supervisor what it was. The supervisor had to teach the guy how to make a salad which came to me with chicken on it. I told him I didn’t want a chicken salad, just a plain salad and they both had to consult another member of staff before trying again with the salad. 30 minutes later I got my tiny salad which was lettuce, 3 cherry tomatoes and a couple of bits of cucumber.
    Fast healthy food this was not!
    These restaurants really need to start catering for different diets and try to move with the times a bit more quickly. The progress is not fast enough in my opinion.

  • Ted

    Who can say what “draws” customers? What we CAN say is fast food hasn’t killed any of them, including the precious “health conscious” ones.
    Fast food critics are industry haters first, food police second and last, off-the-charts dead last, doctors and nutritionists. Happily, they are in the minority. Sadly, however, some of our universities, like NYU have jumped on the industry-hating food police paddy wagon with blogs (like Marion Nestle’s pop science ‘Food Politics’) and are even corrupting students with “courses” in anti-industry, anti-agriculture hate propaganda. In the meantime, we can at least enjoy some tasty affordable fast food!

  • BB

    Ted, I’m glad to see you have such high standards for food. If it’s tasty, affordable and hasn’t “killed anybody,” then it must be good right? I guess I’m silly for wanting food that is good for me and not laced with toxic chemicals.

  • This economy, it is difficult to ignore the fast food is cheap and satisfying. Healthy Fast Food Restaurant provides food which tends to be very high in nutrient.
    Healthy fast food restaurant