A Big Mac, a large Coke, and large fries has 1,360 calories — more than three times the recommended calorie allowance for a meal.
Public health officials hope seeing calorie counts like these on restaurant menus and vending machines will lead consumers to make healthier food choices and help reduce obesity in America. But as Americans increasingly opt for meals outside the home, the battle’s quickly becoming uphill.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 requires restaurants with 20 or more locations to post calorie counts on menus. According to the Food and Drug Administration, 280,000 of the United State’s 600,000 restaurants will be subject to the new regulations.
Starting in 2013, the American Beverage Association is launching its Calories Count program with Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, where calorie information will be posted on vending machines. The program is first rolling out in a few cities, then going nation-wide.
Whether the up-front information will lead to healthier choices is still up for debate.
“I am a stay at home mom of three kids. My family does not eat out much so when we do it is a treat for the family. We go out to eat and enjoy family time together so mom gets to enjoy too. I might look at the calorie count, but it will not influence my choices. My kids are pushed at school (it seems) to look because they come home telling me how many calories are in their food. Going out to eat should be (I think) a family treat not an every meal thing. My family and I sit down at the table most nights to eat and talk about our day.”
“I think it is a great idea. Today’s parents have a very busy lifestyle, often eating breakfast, lunch and dinner on the go. I work out of town and chase kids playing ball or dancing at games in the evenings. It makes for long days, with little time to plan or prepare a healthy meal. The recent practice of including the calorie count on the menu has made a difference in what I decide to order. There are healthier choices at every restaurant, it’s just a matter of figuring out what it is.
It’s kind of like going into a store that doesn’t put a price on its merchandise-we would overspend every time we went to the store without some idea of what we are spending. Keeping it on our radar will definitely help.
I think that kids will also look at this too – teenagers as well as young children. Teens face lots of pressure about their weight, so I think they will pay attention. I think it will also help ingrain in younger children an innate sense of making healthier choices. Anything that we can do to make it easier for families to make healthier choices is a good idea.”
Page 2 of 3 - Judy Crowder
“My name is Katherine Ligon and I have been a resident of Heber Springs for the last 8 and 1/2 years. I am originally from Ukraine. In Ukraine I never worried about my calories intake, I ate what I wanted. There were not many public food restaurants. In Ukraine the majorities of people cook and eat at home.
In contrast, when I moved to America and started to eat American food I began to gain weight. Also, I started to drive instead of walk. In Ukraine I heard about low quality of American food. The majority of America food is processed and has GMO (Genetically Modified Food), additives, and preservatives. This kind of food cannot be good for the body. However, according to Cherlin (2010), in twenty first century Americans live much longer and healthier lives. Today, according to the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics (2007) “the average female baby could expect to live 80 years, the average male baby 75 years” (Cherlin 2010:310). In my opinion, longer American lives are due to highly developed pharmaceutical industry and medicine.
I would like to be healthy and for my children to be healthy without interference of medicine. To accomplish this we do not consume soda drinks. My children drink water, tea, and juices not from concentrate. We do not eat at the fast food restaurants. I cook at home a lot. However, we eat out occasionally. Listing amount of dishes’ calories is a great first step to fight obesity. Next step should be listing GMO presents in meals and introducing organic dishes. Until people have choices of organic dishes at the restaurants, stop drinking sodas in large quantities, and start exercising, the obesity problem will persist.”
Cherlin, Andrew. 2010. Public and Private Families: An Introduction. 6th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.
The percentage of calories Americans consume away from home has almost doubled since the late 1970s, according to the USDA Economic Research Service — and it’s affecting our health and waist lines.
A study from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute published in 2004 indicated young adults who eat frequently at fast food restaurants gain more weight and have a greater increase in insulin resistance in early middle age.
Insulin resistance is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes, and diabetes is a major risk factor for heart disease.
Expanding awareness, waistlines
As Americans’ eating out habits have increased, so has the nation’s obesity rate.
The percentage of children in the United States who were obese increased from 7 percent in 1980 to almost 20 percent in 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Adolescents saw a similar increase.
More than one-third of U.S. adults are obese, resulting in about $147 billion in health care costs in 2008, according to the CDC.
Page 3 of 3 - Jim White, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said calorie awareness is important for addressing overeating in America.
“I don’t think it is going to harm anything,” he said of posting calorie counts on menus. “I think some people are going to be alarmed at the calories in some common restaurant items. A common restaurant meal can be 800 to 1,000 calories. I recommend a lot women have a 400 calorie per meal plan. They are getting 75 percent of their calories for a normal day in one meal.”
Whether the calorie shock will truly dissuade consumers from ordering high-calorie, high-fat foods remains to be seen.
Two major university studies have shown conflicting results of posting calories counts on menus.
A Stanford study of Starbucks consumers showed a 6 percent decrease in calorie consumption when food calorie counts were posted on menus.
A New York University research study had different results.
NYU researchers found about 28 percent of New York City customers who saw calorie labeling indicated the information influenced their choices. However, the participants’ receipts showed they purchased about the same amount of calories before the labeling went into effect and the same amount as consumers where labeling was not required.
Teetering on the edge of health
Despite the calorie postings, some consumers will continue to opt for high-calorie, high-fat choices, with convenience and cost being large factors in those decisions, White said.
White noted many of the items on fast food dollar menus are the higher calorie foods, which may make it more difficult for consumers with fewer economic resources to make healthy choices.
“I think there are definitely certain people who will not opt for a healthy lifestyle, regardless,” he said, “but I think there is a certain population that is teetering and might choose a healthier lifestyle if they had the information. It is that middle population we are looking at.”
White said creating calories awareness at restaurants may lead to healthier eating at home.
“If you can eat healthy at a fast food restaurant, you can eat healthy anywhere,” White said. “If you can face great tasting things like cheeses and butter and tasty fried foods, you’ve dodged a bullet.”