The calorie counts can really add up at chains like Bennigan's. (Business Wire)

The nutritional bombshell was bad enough, but Lawrence Williams, president and founder of the U.S. Healthful Food Council, understood a darker truth within this gloomy report: Restaurants have little incentive to change their habits. Eateries and food-service providers, Williams notes, like to claim, “If people demanded healthier food, we’d give it to them.”

Williams, 44, and his start-up group want to give restaurateurs an incentive to slim down their offerings.

The problem, as Williams sees it, is that Americans increasingly turn to meals outside the home to satisfy their hunger. That trend, compounded by the fact that restaurants are serving calorie bombs, can only validate what a recent forecast suggested: that 42 percent of Americans will be obese by 2030, greatly adding to the country’s health-care costs.

Government solutions to combat the obesity crisis — informational campaigns, mandatory calorie information on menus, Let’s Move! — will not move the needle in the restaurant world, Williams predicts, because they do not give operators much motivation to change.

The U.S. Healthful Food Council plans to borrow a page from the U.S. Green Building Council and its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (or LEED) program, which awards points for environmentally friendly building designs, which in turn can lead to government incentives and higher property values. Those are tangible benefits an owner can believe in.

Williams says his recently launched Responsible Epicurean and Agricultural Leadership program can do much the same for restaurant and food-service operators. The voluntary program would certify restaurants, caterers and food-service companies that meet certain criteria on the use of fruits and vegetables, local produce, whole grains, minimally processed foods, healthful children’s menus, unsweetened beverages and reduced use of salt, trans fats, high-fructose corn syrup and other nutritional bogeymen.

“They want to do the right things,” Williams says about restaurateurs, “and they want to be rewarded for it.”

As with the Healthful Food Council itself, the REAL program is in its infancy. Williams, a self-described “serial entrepreneur,” seeded the group with his own money and is now in “advanced discussions” with foundations about funding a pilot REAL program in a handful of cities. Washington is a leading candidate, no doubt in part because Williams is based here.

At present, restaurants only have to apply online for a basic “REAL” certification, Williams says. It’s essentially an honor-system certification to help the Healthful Food Council build critical mass until it can start training dieticians and nutritionists to conduct formal inspections of restaurants for higher, more rigorous certifications.

“We want to make the bar as low as possible” at first, says Williams.
“Then we’ll follow up and verify what they say they’re doing.”

The organization is also working with industry experts — including professor Brian Wansink, former executive director of the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion — to develop points-based , consensus-oriented criteria for REAL certifications. Like LEED, the REAL program plans to have different levels of certification: silver, gold and platinum.

Restaurants that eventually get certified, Williams says, will enjoy certain perks, such as online and offline marketing campaigns designed to drive diners to the establishments. The Healthful Food Council may also promote “REAL” happy hours at certified restaurants, at times when these owners need to fill seats. Corporate caterers and food-service providers could even earn insurance breaks for becoming REAL certified, Williams suggests, given rising health care costs.

Just don’t expect all this to happen immediately, Williams cautions. It has taken the U.S. Green Building Council nearly 20 years to reach its lofty status. “This is not going to happen overnight,” he says.