There's also no shortage of criticism of the restaurants. Opponents say they monopolize the food market, don't offer healthy food options and use questionable advertising practices. And they certainly play a role in the area's climbing obesity rates and, subsequently, the prevalence of chronic disease.
But what if fast-food joints could make a few small changes that would have customers spending the same amount – but eating less and enjoying their food more?
One study indicates that may be a possibility. New research appearing in Psychological Reports found that customers' moods shift according to a restaurant's ambience: Softer lighting and music – compared to the harsh florescent lighting and upbeat soundtracks of most fast-food eateries – make for increased satisfaction and reduced caloric intake.
Koert van Ittersum, a co-author of the study and a professor of marketing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said he and co-author Dr. Brian Wansink set up shop at a Hardee's in Illinois, with one section of the restaurant as it would normally appear. In the other section, they brought down the lighting, put tablecloths up and played soft jazz.
Then they had people eat in both spaces – and compared. Van Ittersum said people spent the same amount of money and bought what they usually buy. But the people in the more elegant space "ended up consuming 18 percent less calories than the people that were sitting in the fast-food space," he told OnCentral.
They also enjoyed their meal more.
"They spent the same amount, they ate less, but they felt better about the whole experience," he said.
As it stands, fast-food joints tend not to put too much stock in the customer's experience, said van Ittersum.
"It's about getting your food, chowing down and moving on with your life," he said. It's also about not taking up a seat, which is why "it's not extremely attractive to sit down in most places."
But van Ittersum says fast-food restaurants have plenty to gain from changing up their atmosphere to something a little nicer – but very little to lose.
"[Maybe] people eat a little less, but if they spend the same amount, that shouldn't make a lot of difference," he said. "And they're happier – if people like the experience better, they're more likely to return to your restaurant."
Customers' increased satisfaction, said van Ittersum, has a lot to do with feeling less rushed, eating more slowly and focusing less on the food in front of you and more on, say, the person you're with – "as opposed to taking five big bites and being done with it."
Bur for Gwendolyn Flynn, the community health and education policy director at Community Health Councils, restaurants' changing up their ambience isn't an effective route to take when it comes to building healthy communities.
Flynn concedes that the researchers' findings could maybe constitute "a small step, a first step" for fast-food joints, but that's about it.
"It's not enough," she said. "It doesn't go far enough to make an impact or difference where chronic diseases are concerned." She added it also wouldn't be enough for the health of communities that don't have a lot of access to places with a wide menu selection: People are still going choose bad food, she said – improving ambience just lessens that a bit.
"I really don't think it's worth it because I don't think it's going to get at the root of the problem at all," Flynn said. "I think it's just one tiny step and I hope the food and restaurant industries don't look at it as a way of getting out of this."
One more note about cutting caloric intake: New research says reducing how many calories you eat does not, in fact, extend people's lifespans.
Photo by ebru via Flickr Creative Commons.