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Subway’s Healthy Food?

Are healthy meals from U.S. fast food chains trying to capitalize on Americans’ concerns about obesity?

January 5, 2005

Are healthy meals from U.S. fast food chains trying to capitalize on Americans' concerns about obesity?

All of a sudden, Americans are putting two and two together and are realizing that their eating habits — and especially their nationwide addiction to fast food — might be behind the country's obesity epidemic.

But are they abandoning their fast-food joints in droves? Do not bet your life on it.

The fast-food industry is still enjoying a steady growth rate, with sales increasing by around 5% per year — and reaching upwards of $120 billion in 2003.

Over the next 10 years, sales are projected to almost double from their current level.

But might this be because the selection of food offered by these fast-food restaurants has become a tad healthier?

True, McDonald's and Burger King have introduced salads and lighter versions of their usual fare.

Yet the majority of Americans flocks to these places for the traditional Big Macs and Double Whoppers — served with a generous helping of French fries or onion rings and a super-sized soft drink.

Other chains also started offering slightly healthier menus to their customers.

Some even provide a no-nonsense list of the calories and ingredients that make up their foods.

That is the good news. The bad news is that the dynamics of the fast-food industry — and its quest for profits — compel restaurants to supplement their healthy menu items with fattening extras.

And Americans are still falling for it. Take Subway, the world's largest sandwich chain. Unlike McDonald's, Subway has managed to stay out of the sights of anti-globalization protesters.

Yet — as it boasts on its website ( — Subway has 20,493 restaurants in 79 countries. And it operates more restaurants in the United States and Canada than even the mighty McDonald's.

Somebody once referred to advertising as the art of telling customers what they want to hear. This is apparently a lesson Subway has learned well.

It promotes its fast food as both healthy — and slimming.

The slimming part, as the majority of Americans learned starting in early 2000, was taken care of by then-Indiana University student Jared S. Fogle.

As the popular Subway television ads drove home, this kid went from a pathologically obese 425 pounds down to a mere 190 pounds — and he did so by eating Subway sandwiches.

Indeed, Jared lost all that weight on what is now called "the Subway diet." But read the fine print if you really want to know the story.

As the chain's official website admits, Jared was on an extremely strict diet of two Subway sandwiches per day: a 6-inch turkey sub, baked Lays potato chips with a diet soda for lunch — and a foot-long veggie sub for dinner.

That’s it. Jared ate nothing else, including no cheese, mayo or oil on any of the subs. It was that campaign — and image — that really launched Subway's current appeal.

No wonder, then, that the promise of a healthier lifestyle has been at the core of most of Subway’s ad campaigns since.

For example, some of these ads showed people doing bad things without feeling guilty, because they have already been good by eating a healthy Subway sandwich.

True, Subway offers a range of relatively healthy foods in its menu, including salads. And since 1997, it has been offering seven sandwiches with less than six grams of fat each.

However, many of Subway’s other sandwiches — from Meatball to Philly Cheese Steak — still contain high levels of saturated fat and, especially in the case of cold cuts, are often drenched with sodium.

Still, compared to most of the other U.S. fast-food chains, Subway gives you an opportunity to eat healthy on the go.

This could have been the end of the story, except that it isn't.

When you get to the counter of your local Subway and order a healthy, low-calorie sandwich — it turns out you get asked by the cashier to buy something called a "Fresh Value Meal."

After all, it is a great deal you're being offered. It costs only a little extra, the cashier tells you. You get a full meal, complete with a 21-ounce soda and a bag of potato chips.

The trouble is, a regular soft drink of that size — nearly twice the size of the standard aluminum can — contains some 400 calories and plenty of sugar. And regular potato chips will stuff you with 11 grams of fat and nearly 160 calories per serving.

Moreover, there is the option of swapping the chips for two cookies, which — as Subway's own nutritionists are all too happy to inform you — add an additional 450 calories.

Obviously, when promoting its diet, Subway also talks about the value of exercise.

For example, for Jared to lose all that weight, he had to walk to school instead of taking the bus.

How many miles do you think you'll need to walk to get rid of all the calories you ingest by falling for those almost-free extras? Believe it or not, you'll have to walk nearly four miles to lose the calories of that 21-ounce soft drink.

Add on another three miles to work off your small bag of chips. A walk like that would take most people between two and four hours — for a meal that will take you about 20 minutes or less to gobble up.

Some people will limit the damage from these extras by getting baked potato chips instead of the fried variety — and a diet soda instead of a regular soft drink. But many others who eat at Subway may — knowingly or unknowingly — undo the benefits of their healthy sandwich.

At the core of this issue are once again the dynamics of the fast-food business, which compel restaurant chains to sell bigger beverages and cheap extras like potato chips and French fries to boost their profits.

This is how fast-food companies make money — and the reason why they can offer relatively inexpensive sandwiches.

As a result, even a restaurant chain that advertises itself as healthy and non-fattening ends up pushing unhealthy and fattening foods on their customers.