What Lower Calories Can Do For Your Wealth

Source: The Motley Fool.com By – February 19, 2013

Nate is a member of The Motley Fool Blog Network — entries represent the personal opinion of the blogger and are not formally edited.

An interesting report came out recently. It was by the Hudson Institute Obesity Solutions Initiative, and it dealt with how restaurants can bring lower-calorie meals to their customers. Interesting reading if you’re into that sort of thing.

But the most interesting part of the report concerns the study on how restaurants do better when they begin offering healthier, lower calorie meals on their menus. The research – which surprised me – shows that when restaurants offer healthier items they actual see better sales and traffic. Again, color me surprised. If you’ve been following along you’ll know that I’ve managed to lose more than 100 pounds in the last year or so, and I largely got that way by eating fast food and other low-health food choices.

I’m cheered that the research shows that, by offering more healthier choices, chain restaurants can do better for their customers and themselves. It’s counter to the oft-made portrayal of American’s and lazy couch potatoes slathering gravy all over everything.

Anyway, I thought I’d use the report as a springboard to get my readers thinking about investing in restaurants. It appears, from the report, that restaurants with more healthy options grew their sales at a 5.5% rate, while stores that did not saw their sales decline by a similar amount. Those are good numbers to have. If an investor is aware of them it makes choosing which restaurants to invest in a much easier proposition.

McDonald’s (NYSE: MCD)

I know it seems silly to mention McDonald’s in a column on healthy investing, but the chain has been making an effort in that direction with its new ‘Favorites Under 400’ low calorie menu. While I can’t say that everything on the menu is healthy, the fact that the firm is making the effort indicated good things for the future, according to the Hudson report. The company has seen some bad news recently, but overseas growth seems to be taking off, with margins in Europe growing 5%. Shares are up more than 10% since November, and the company also raised its dividend 10% during that time. I think that it’s a buy.

Darden Restaurants (NYSE: DRI)

Olive Garden is owned by Darden Restaurants, which also owns Red Lobster, Longhorn Steakhouse, Capital Grille, and several other chains and franchises. Looking at the nutritional info for Olive Garden, I don’t see a lot to build confidence. Only two entrees qualify as ‘healthy’ under the terms of the study (fewer than 500 calories), and we shouldn’t even discuss the never-ending pasta bowls. The stock floated between $50 and $55 most of the year before it took a tumble in December on bad earnings expecations. In December the chain announced diluted net earnings. On the other hand, the EPS is still positive and the dividend is now a stratospheric $4.24. Only buy if you really want the dividend, but otherwise avoid.

Wendy’s (NASDAQ: WEN)

Wendy’s is another chain that’s not going to win any awards, looking at the nutritional information.  Heck, the single burger breaks the study’s 500 calorie requirement on its own. To eat healthy at Wendy’s one would need to either eat all sides or just stick to salads. That’s not why people go to a burger place. Over the last 12 months the stock dropped about 15% and has subsequently recovered, meaning there’s been no profit for investors who held for a year. However, there’s still a fourth quarter EBITDA increase of 19% and a 3.2% dividend to take in, I suppose. But, like Darden above, I’d avoid it.

Outback Steakhouse (NASDAQ: BLMN)

I love Outback. Not to eat, but for the goofy ticker. Bloomin’! Ha! The chain just made it’s initial public offering in August and has done well in the markets by gaining 40% since its debut. I wouldn’t have believed it but, if you avoid the steaks, there are some healthy choices at Outback; the fish and and grilled chicken look especially good. So this gets them a gold star for healthy eating, at least as far as menu choices go. The stock has, as I mentioned, done well so far and a P/E of 30+ shows that I’m not the only one who thinks it’ll go higher. I’d rate that one a buy.

Brinker International (NYSE: EAT)

Brinkers owns both Chili’s and Maggiano’s Little Italy. Chili’s is mentioned in the Hudson report, so let’s take a peek at it. Chili’s offers a ‘Guiltless Grill’ menu, but a lot of the items on it wouldn’t qualify by the terms of the study. Still, choosing properly, it can be done. The restaurant’s salads make the cut and so does the shrimp combos.  Meanwhile, the firm’s stock has had a happy year, climbing from $27.45 to $33.69, and the dividend is 2.37%, so it’s got both good performance and a decent attempt at healthy menu options going for it. I’ll give it a qualified buy based on the menu, because while it has healthy options, when it’s bad it’s terrible.

I’m not actually advising you to use anything here as a guide for eating healthy or weight loss. See a doctor, that’s not my job. But I did want to take the time to show you how just being aware of various trends and reports can help you better evaluate the companies into which you consider putting your money. Read the original report (warning: PDF) from the Hudson Institute and make up your own mind. I know it enlightened me a bit.