'Fresco menu': Trimming pounds, inches with tacos

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - The company that introduced a taco-obsessed Chihuahua, late night cravings for "Fourth Meal" and cheese-soaked double-decker tacos now says it can trim the fat from consumers' diets.

In ad spots much like those done by Subway touting Jared Fogle's weight loss triumphs, Taco Bell has introduced a new weight loss warrior to the fast food game.

Christine Dougherty, 27, ate items from Taco Bell's lower-calorie "Fresco menu" five to eight times a week and dropped more than 50 pounds, according to the company. In commercials, Dougherty shows off her now-svelte body in form-fitting, shape-revealing clothes while holding up giant photos of her formerly plump self.

"I lost about two pounds a month over a period of two years by reducing my daily calories and replacing my typical fast-food lunch or dinner with something from the Taco Bell Drive-Thru Diet," Dougherty says in the commercial. "I just chose smarter options."

[See Dougherty's Drive-Thru Diet site.]

Needless to say, those options did not include cheesy gorditas and half-pound burritos.

Dougherty cut 500 calories from her diet and limited herself to 1,250 a day, according to the ads and the Taco Bell website. She replaced her regular Taco Bell meals with the chain's Fresco items: seven tacos and burritos that range from 150 to 340 calories.

Some nutritional experts say the ads could be misleading, but the step by Taco Bell to offer a few lower-calorie options is a step in the right direction.

And the misleading part comes from what isn't said by Taco Bell -- the items on the "Fresco menu" are not cooked any differently. It's all the same meat and beans; it just lacks the sauces and cheese of the other items on their menu. Instead, each taco or burrito has a healthy -- pun intended -- dollop of tomato, onion and cilantro salsa.

According to the nutritional information provided by Taco Bell, that one change trims an average of 50 calories off each item. While the marketing team for Taco Bell have branded the new menu the Drive-Thru Diet, disclaimers at the bottom of the ads point out one simple truth: "This is not a weight-loss program."

[Taco Bell nutritional information.]

Tonya Turner, a registered dietician at the Weight Management Center at the Medical University of South Carolina, said the "Fresco menu" does offer a few improvements over the chain's regular fare. Salsa replaces cheese and sauce and, for customers that opt for soft shell over hard shell, bigger cuts in fat content.

"The soft shell, in terms of fat grams, is going to be less than a hard shell because it's not going to be fried," said Turner.

The underlying logic of Dougherty's weight loss likely wasn't due to the "Fresco menu," but to her cutting 500 calories from her daily caloric intake. The lesson is one that can be carried forward for anyone looking to lose weight.

"You can make a pretty healthy choice as long as you order correctly," said Turner.

Cutting the mayonnaise from sandwiches, avoiding fried foods and looking for menu items that don't feature layers of cheese can help anyone trim the fat, literally. More importantly, these tips to thinning aren't limited to fast food joints or even restaurants in general. These same tips can be exercised at home.

Perhaps the hardest part for any consumer will be ordering from the lower-calorie menu.

©2010 WCSC. All rights reserved.