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Meat and potatoes: America's big appetite is getting a makeover (sort of)

Daily Ticker

American eating habits are in constant transition, and that's one of the key factors the red-hot restaurant sector is dealing with these days.

USDA data show just how significant some of these trends are. In 1976, we each ate 94.4 lbs of beef. That same year, we consumed 42.1 lbs of chicken. Here in 2014, we switched -- the government estimates we'll eat 53 lbs of beef and 85 lbs of chicken. We're still eating a lot of meat in total, around 203 lbs per person. While that's down from the high above 221 lbs in 2007, we've by and large been north of the 200-lb mark for 25 years.

Some of the change in the mix is undoubtedly cost-driven. Another influence is the idea of white meat as a better-for-you alternative. Then there are those among us who are simply eating less meat overall for lifestyle reasons. According to a 2012 Gallup poll, about 5% of Americans say they're vegetarian, a touch lower than the 6% found in similar polls in 1999 and 2001. A nonprofit called the Vegetarian Resource Group puts the number at about 4%, citing Harris Interactive data.

Related: Yes, GMO foods are safe to eat: WaPo writer

In order to get their share of consumer dollars, restaurants, many of which are seeing scant revenue growth, have had to adapt, getting ever-more creative in terms of their menu offerings. Pricing, both value and premium, is part of the strategy, but it's the outlandish foods that really get people talking. We live in a social world, and pictures of Ramen buns and Mountain Dew-flavored Cheetos make headlines. Members of the media play a role here because we know this stuff clicks. There's no way to measure it quantitatively, but it's not hard to argue that last year's food-industry hype propelled the Cronut to a crazed state it might not have attained five years ago.

How much money is at stake in all this? On a conference call last year, McDonald's (MCD) CEO Don Thompson put the global size of what his company calls the informal eating-out market at $1.2 trillion. In the U.S. alone, the National Restaurant Association last year predicted full-year restaurant sales would be over $660 billion.

Some companies have had better luck raising prices than others, but on the whole, inflation for food we purchase outside our homes, is up 2.1% from a year ago. Assuming prices continue to rise this year and beyond, how much more will Americans pay at restaurants and bars? Already, we spend more than 43% of our total food dollars away from the house, up from about 26% in 1970. Eventually, we will all reach a point where it's too costly to do so with any regularity.

Healthy living?

Clearly, some of us want healthier options when we're eating out. The effect is that we get fare like a turkey burger at Burger King (BKW) or egg whites on a McMuffin. Chains such as Wendy's (WEN) tout the use of fresh ingredients. Chipotle (CMG) has seen massive growth by pushing the notion that we should care what's in our food and where it's from.

But let's face it, most of the time, getting "health" food at a fast-food chain is not our goal. We want cheap, speedy, salty food, and that's the end of that. It's often a case where we "talk thin and eat fat." Considering the size of the diet industry, estimated at $20 billion in a 2012 ABC report, we'd like to lose weight. But that's easier said than done. McDonald's Thompson noted last year that salads were still  a small part of his company's business.

Related: Nutrisystem CEO: "We never want to be that fad diet"

Which brings us to the stocks. We looked at 37 restaurants, and on average, they were up more than 50% in 2013. That roughly doubled the S&P 500, making for a much stronger performance than they normally produce. Coming close to repeating that is going to be extremely difficult this year.

That's because money managers on the hunt for growth were eager to come by names that have expansion potential. After all the big buying, many of the restaurant stocks are now trading well above their average valuation metrics of the past five years. At some point, performance can only be chased so high. The hype, of course, can probably continue much longer.

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