By Rachel Johnson, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., March 8, 2011 - 11:33am
Call me a geeky dietitian, I don’t care. I’m a diehard nutrition-label reader and love having that information readily available. So imagine my delight when I recently went into Starbucks in my hometown in Vermont and finally saw calorie counts prominently displayed on the coffee menu board and in the bakery case. I’d been waiting for restaurant calorie labeling to come to my state ever since I saw it in New York City a few years ago. Later this month, the FDA plans to issue the final proposed regulations for nationwide restaurant menu labeling.
What to Order:
Oatmeal smackdown: the healthiest fast-food oatmeals
4 coffee shop drinks to watch out for, plus lighter options
4 fast-food dinners to steer clear of (and what to order instead)
4 diet-busting fast-food lunches to skip (and what to order instead)
4 healthy-sounding fast-food breakfasts that aren’t (and what to eat instead)
4 diet-busting fast-food drinks (and better choices to save you 1,464 calories)
I find it worrisome, but not surprising, that recent headlines have been screaming that restaurant calorie labeling isn’t doing a thing to change consumers’ buying habits, especially when the results are actually mixed among the small number of studies published on the topic.
While these studies make some good points, they have limitations.
Perhaps another reason calorie labeling isn’t working is because the information isn’t helpful if you don’t know how many calories you need in a day. (Must-Read: How Many Calories Do You Need?) I found it compelling that in the International Journal of Obesity fast-food study, 60 percent of the teenagers questioned thought adults needed less than 1,500 calories per day—which is lower than the reality of about 1,800 (for women) and 2,200 calories (for men). I think we need a campaign to help people understand their daily calorie needs, similar to the “Know Your Numbers” campaign launched years ago by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, designed to help Americans understand what their cholesterol and blood pressure numbers mean.
I for one am far from ready to give up on restaurant calorie labeling, but I’m not so naïve as to think that it is the solution to our nation’s obesity problem. After all, we’ve had calorie and nutrition information on grocery-store foods since the mid-’90s and it hasn’t stopped us from getting where we are today. But, when about 60 percent of Americans read food labels (and report consuming fewer calories, less saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium and sugars as a result), and then factor in that foods eaten away from home account for more than half of what Americans spend on food, we need nutrition information in restaurants. No one thing will solve the obesity problem—not soda taxes, not banning junk food in schools, not calorie labeling in restaurants. But together they can help create an environment that will make it easier for many of us to make healthier choices and achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
By Rachel Johnson, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., for EatingWell Magazine
Rachel K. Johnson, Ph.D., R.D., is an EatingWell advisor and Professor of Nutrition at the University of Vermont. Dr. Johnson is Vice Chair of the American Heart Association Nutrition Committee and a member of the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition Science Board.
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