HED Calorie sticker shock
More vending machines, restaurants to display calorie info – but will it change Americans’ habits?
By Cristina Janney
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.
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.
Deanna House, the director of food services for the Waynesville School District said that the Waynesville School District only has two schools with vending machines, the middle school and the high school.
The machines at the middle school only have healthy options, such as 100 percent juices and milks, and the machines at the High School has mostly fruit juices, milks and Gatorade and only diet sodas as a part o the school's wellness plan, under the Healthy, Hunger-Free guidelines.
Dorsey Newcomb, parent of a Waynesville High School student, said that his son typically only drinks water, milk or protein drinks and doesn't drink more than one or two sports drinks per week.
“Posting calories school cafeterias is a good idea and could lead to healthier food choices for young adults that would be beneficial throughout their lives,” he said.
House feels that while posting calorie information could help students, it is most important to give students plenty of healthy options to chose from in order for them to make healthier choices and to limit the availability of sodas and sugary snacks.
“I think all of the publicity about the importance of being healthy does make kids think and make healthier choices,” House said.
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.
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.”