Just Tell Us What We’re Eating

Silhouette of cheese burger and summer garden vegetablesby Amanda Orcutt

The American diet is currently a prominent issue, negatively affecting the health of much of the US population and resulting in issues like obesity and diabetes. Such problems are often linked to poor food choices. While what people eat in their own homes contributes to these factors, it is no secret that restaurants and fast food chains do not offer the healthiest meals. Instead, they are associated with quick but innutritious food. Although the occasional fast food meal may not be detrimental to one’s health, the average American eats out 4-5 times per week. Clearly, restaurant meals are a large part of the nation’s diet. Furthermore, not only are many making unhealthy decisions, but they are consuming more food in general at restaurants. It has been reported that, when dining out, consumers tend to underestimate the amount they are eating by 20%. Currently, most restaurants do not have any nutritional information displayed for consumers that is easily visible, making choosing healthy options at restaurants difficult. While fast food may provide a quick meal, is convenience worth putting one’s health at risk, or is there a way that eating healthier can be made easier when dining out?

The US Patient Affordable Care Act is attempting to address the unhealthy and high-caloric meals that are being consumed by Americans at restaurants through a new federal law that was proposed earlier this year. While certain kinks are still being worked out, if passed, it will affect the transparency of restaurant menus within the next year, giving consumers more knowledge about what exactly they’re eating when dining out. The law will require that all restaurants with over 20 locations in the US post caloric counts next to food items on the menu. While some restaurants may already have nutritional information available, such as on a website, the new law will make caloric information instantly accessible. It is hoped that this knowledge will help consumers make healthier choices when dining out, given that they will have easier access to nutritional information. Furthermore, the new law will likely pressure restaurants into offering lighter and healthier options on their menus to appeal to customers who are seeking lower calorie options. If passed, the new law has the potential to benefit the health of the nation.

71% of the US population claims that they wish to have healthy options available when eating out. Having caloric information displayed on menus, which will help diners identify healthier options, will attract such consumers. The new law will also appeal to those who are aware of how many calories they should be eating, like people who are attempting to lose weight, are diabetic, or simply maintaining a healthy lifestyle. In recent studies, caloric counts on menus have also been shown to decrease the amount of calories consumed by customers in general. Stanford University conducted a study where caloric information was listed on the menus of several Starbucks at varying locations. After 14 months, there was a 6% decrease in calories purchased, and calorie reduction continued for 10 months after the information was posted. Furthermore, the businesses’ revenues were not negatively affected by the listing of such information. It has also been found that restaurants who already display caloric information are altering their menus by slimming down current food items and offering a larger number of healthy choices. In fact, a recent study has proven that restaurants that have complied with other menu-labeling laws, where more nutritional information was provided, increased their healthier food options from 13% to 20% over a period of 5 years. Furthermore, those restaurants that offered more healthy options sold 1.3 billion fewer servings of unhealthy traditional items like French fries. Studies like these illustrate that having caloric information made available to consumers decreases the amount of calories consumed while pressuring restaurants into offering healthier food items.

Nonetheless, some argue that having caloric information displayed will fail to change people’s eating habits. It has been stated that most consumers will eat what they want regardless of how many calories the meal may contain. Furthermore, some studies have shown little or no change in calories purchased at restaurants, even when caloric counts are supplied. Researchers from Cornell University and the University of Pittsburgh conducted a study where they stood outside McDonalds restaurants in New York City, where caloric counts are already listed on the menu. The researchers passed out fliers with information about how many calories men and women should eat for lunch. Despite having such information, men consumed 11% more than the fliers recommended and women consumed 27% more. However, studies that show no decrease in calories consumed are typically conducted over a short period of time. It has been found that, when the caloric information is available for longer durations, the amount of calories purchased decreases. In another study, there was no difference in calories purchased after 6 months of having the caloric counts on the menu, but there was a decrease after 18 months. It is also arguable that calories fail to reveal specific information about the nutritional quality of food. While a calorie may be a calorie when attempting to lose and gain weight, not all are created equally and even lower calorie food items can still be unhealthy. Nevertheless, even if caloric counts do not explicitly provide information about other nutritional aspects, they are able to serve as a tool for which people can, combined with their own judgment, make healthier choices at restaurants.

While the passing of the new federal law may not be a complete solution to the significant health problems in the US, it is a step in a positive direction. Many eat out on a regular basis and fail to make healthy food choices. Not only will having caloric counts listed directly on menus provide more information to consumers about the food they are eating, but it will likely also result in healthier food choices being offered at restaurants in general. Essentially, adopting a healthier diet is up to oneself. The new law does not force customers into decreasing their calories or making more nutritionally sound choices. It does, however, provide them with a tool that can make healthy eating simpler when dining out. While studies may show mixed results, it has been proven that, in the long run, having caloric information available increases healthy menu options and decreases calories purchased. American’s are being given a chance to help make positive changes to their otherwise unhealthy diets and should be aware of how this nutritional information can be a step in solving the health problems of the nation.


2 Comments to “Just Tell Us What We’re Eating”

  1. Providing calories on menu boards is a great way to educate the public and to make them think twice about ordering high caloric foods. This type of law will also force restaurants to really evaluate their menus and ponder possible healthy alternatives. From a marketing standpoint a restaurant with high caloric values might be seen as unhealthy. By having caloric information featured on a restaurants menu it will make the general public more aware of their diets, however it won’t solve obesity problems outright. People will need to supplement their diet with regular exercise and by understanding what types of foods they are eating will lead them in the right direction.

  2. I think that this new law is a step to improving this nation’s health problems. Although it won’t decrease the obesity rates, I think it will make American’s open up their eyes to what they are consuming. I did find the McDonald’s study to be really interesting! I figured that the participants who were handed the calorie count sheets would definitely consume less calories. Overall though, I do think that this law will be beneficial but generally it really is on the individual and their motivation to be healthy. It’s not just about the food you eat, but about the work you put in.

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