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 is quickly becoming uphill.
‘Healthy’ options
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 States' 600,000 restaurants will be subject to the new regulations. In September, McDonald’s was one of the first large fast food chains to roll out the new menus. 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. Lisa Bartel with the Harvey County Health Department thinks the calorie counts will cause people to think twice about the items they order at restaurants, or purchase from a vending machine. “Seeing the number of calories will allow people to make informed choices,” she said. It also may shed light on items that appear “healthy” but really aren’t. “The turkey, chicken or salad option is not always the best choice on a menu,” Bartel said. “It always depends how the item is prepared and whether the amount of dressing or sauce can be controlled. Having the calorie counts posted to compare items will be very helpful for consumers.” However, she doesn’t think the calorie counts will be as effective for younger consumers. “I do not think posted values will stop most children from selecting what they want to eat without some education from their parents,” she said.
Expanding waistlines
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 waistlines. 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. 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. Harvey County hasn’t escaped from the obesity trend. Bartel said according to the 2009 Kansas Behavioral Risk Surveillance System, 24.8 percent of adults in Harvey County are obese. If you add those that are overweight, the number jumps to 66.6 percent of adults. “So, when you are in our community, two out of three adults are not in their healthy weight range,” she said.
Expanding awareness
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 (of) 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 calorie 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. Lisa Bartel with the Harvey County Health Department said seeing calorie counts already has affected her personally, and she does pay attention to those numbers. When she discovered that each breadstick at a certain restaurant had 140 calories, she no longer ate several of them before her main meal. She thinks the calorie counts may help people know how to indulge more smartly — with moderation. “There is room for every food in every diet,” she said. “The trick is to choose foods that nourish your body the majority of the time and to control the portion sizes of the ones that do not.” “I think some consumers will be surprised how many calories are in their favorite foods,” she added. “When you are standing in front of a vending machine at 3 p.m., knowing that a candy bar has 280 calories might make some individuals rethink their choice.”
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, registered dietitian Jim White said. He 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 calorie 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.” Bartel adds that it’s important to remember we can’t just blame high-calorie fast food for the nation’s obesity problem: There’s also a lack of exercise. In Harvey County, 56.1 percent of adults reported they do not participate in the recommended amount of physical activity, which is 30 minutes at least five times per week. She recommends those interested in learning more about the obesity epidemic attend a special screening of “The Weight of the Nation,” an HBO documentary, at 7 p.m. Jan. 29 and 30 at Newton High School.