"This is a good time to introduce those new light menus because everybody has probably put on some pounds over the holidays," John LaRosa, research director for Marketdata Enterprises.
Mr. LaRosa said diet season generally begins Jan. 1, after the average person gains 7 pounds between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. The real heat of the diet season last until Memorial Day, Mr. LaRosa said, although the only real drop off in diet-program enrollment happens during the holidays. After all, he said, 77 million Americans are on a diet today, up from 55 million a decade ago.
Not everyone agrees.
"It's one of those classic cases of responding to what customers say they want but they don't really buy," said John Moore, a former Starbucks marketer who now writes the blog BrandAutopsy.com. "When push comes to shove, they want to treat themselves." Regardless of the reason, lighter fare is on the way.
"Consumers are more knowledgeable about nutrition these days, and many are looking for lighter menu items," said Tammy Bailey, division VP-menu marketing and promotions at Jack in the Box. Her chain will offer grilled chicken strips with teriyaki dipping sauce and a revamped chicken fajita pita with whole-grain bread starting Jan. 3. The chicken strips have 190 calories a serving without sauce and 260 calories with sauce. The fajita pita has 300 calories and 16 grams of fat.
Jack in the Box is also introducing a logo with the words "smart choice" and a Jack in the Box hat to help direct health-conscious consumers toward lighter menu fare. The chain's agency is Secret Weapon Marketing, Santa Monica, Calif.
Taco Bell is launching a "Fresco menu" nationwide Dec. 31. The nine items -- four tacos, four burritos and one salad -- each have between four and eight grams of fat and 350 or fewer calories. The items include a Zesty Chicken Border Bowl, Ranchero Chicken Soft Taco and Burrito Supreme made with chicken or beef. Taco Bell's agency is DraftFCB.
Starbucks is rolling out a "skinny" platform, which is a range of lattes made with skim milk and flavored with sugar-free syrup. These options have been available at Starbucks for some time, save the new sugar-free mocha syrup. Sugar-free vanilla, hazelnut, caramel and cinnamon dolce syrups are already available.
As part of this effort, customers can simply order their lattes "skinny," without having to discuss the preferred milk and syrup and directing additional attention to their diets. Starbucks' agency is Wieden & Kennedy.
"We regularly hear from our partners that customers are cutting calories and seeking healthier options," said Katie Thomson, a registered dietitian with Starbucks. "We understand how important overall wellness is to our customers, and so we've made it easier for them to stick to their New Year's goals without giving up their daily coffee routine by introducing the 'skinny' platform."
But Mr. Moore of Brand Autopsy said the efforts are not likely to move the sales needle.
"So much of this is a PR move and not a sales move," he said. "It might increase with one trial, but the whole trick is to get them to buy it again and again."
Mr. Moore recalled Starbucks' Frappucino light beverage, which didn't catch on. The regular beverage only had about 3 grams of fat before any whipped-cream topping, he said. "It's kind of light as it is, but they found that consumers like the more indulgent beverages."