With more Americans eating out and consuming portion sizes astronomically larger than before, cooking and family meals have been swapped for convenience and frenzied eating on the go. It is no wonder that one third of Americans are obese, and two thirds are overweight or obese.
In 2010, the Affordable Care Act mandated that the FDA require vending machines and food establishments with greater than 20 locations to post calorie content of food items on their menus for customers to view while ordering. Details about fat, carbohydrate, and sodium content must be made available online or presented in writing upon request. Menu labeling is intended to assist consumers in making lower calorie choices and therefore help to fight against obesity.
Initial research has shown mixed results in the effectiveness of menu labeling on influencing eating behaviors. Many consumers who regularly eat at fast-food restaurants are not looking to watch their calories – they are looking for something economical, filling, and highly palatable. Calorie labeling influences the dichotomous thinkers such as, “I’m already here and I’m hungry, so I might as well get the Big Mac, even if it’s 800 calories.”
Furthermore, behavior change for weight loss involves much more than just calorie counting. Though weight control in its simplest formula is a balance of calories consumed and calories burned, weight loss for those who are overweight or obese encompasses stress management, engaging in physical activity that you find enjoyable, eating a variety of unprocessed foods such as more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, consuming small portions, recognizing emotional eating patterns, learning how to prepare your own meals, and the eating environment. The drive-through window hardly creates the optimal dining experience necessary for behavior change.
In addition, focusing on calories detracts from opportunities for nutrition education because it emphasizes a number rather than a nutrient that plays a role in the body. A serving of fries that is 400 calories versus one that is 600 calories still contains “empty calories” meaning no nutrients, high in saturated fat and sodium. In addition, the menu labeling requirements assume a 2,000 calorie diet plan. Each person’s daily caloric needs vary greatly based on age, gender, and physical activity level. A Starbuck’s beverage containing 400 calories means something very different for someone who only needs 1,800 calories per day versus someone needing 3,000 calories.
On the flip side, it is not only overweight or obese individuals who visit fast-food and chain restaurants – many consumers will go for an occasional treat. Posting calories on every single menu item provides education to help consumers make healthful choices. This information may also be helpful to those individuals on special diets, where calorie and fat restrictions are necessary.
Though menu labeling is a quick and easy approach for getting consumers to think twice about their meal options, we would like to encourage people to focus on overall lifestyle changes. These include cooking more at home, taking time to enjoy meals, and recognizing your own hunger and fullness cues, rather than obsessing over a number on a menu.