More restaurants, vending machines to display calorie counts — but will it change our eating habits?
A Big Mac, a large Coke and large fries has 1,360 calories — more than three times the recommended 400 calories per 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.
While the nutritional information itself has been freely available, especially online, one Kirksville, Mo., parent said when it comes to eating out, she and her family aren't thinking most about the calories.
"When it comes to dining out, we go out with a different perspective," said Stacey Semple, Kirksville resident and mother of two young boys. "When we go out we're not that worried about it and when it comes to a kid's meal, it's kind of a special treat."
For her family's nutrition, most of the management and control takes place at home.
At home, Semple said her 6- and 8-year-old boys are allowed snacks like fruit, granola and yogurt and that soda is usually reserved for the weekend.
"We're definitely not obsessive calorie counters, but we keep healthier options on hand to help encourage healthy choices in the future," she said.
Another mother, Jennifer Taylor Rider, said in a Facebook reply that she views nutrition and food as the body's fuel and strives to "put in the best possible foods to operate [at] your highest potential."
She also limits her children's intake of soda and sugar.
"Obesity among our youth is growing at an extreme rate," she said.
But it's not just youth that are seeing the bulge.
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 or not 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.
New York University researchers found about 28 percent of New York City customers indicated calorie labeling influenced their choices.
However, the participants' receipts showed they purchased about the same amount of calories before the labeling went into effect.
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."
Teach kids to eat healthy early on
Will a visual reminder — calories posted on menus and vending machines — help people make healthier choices?
The firm answer is, "it depends."
Information is helpful; people don't always know how many calories they're eating, or even how many they should consume, according to Kim Evert, a local mom who is also the director of the Pratt Teen Center, where middle schoolers stop for snacks after school.
"I've done the research and I'd rather not know," admitted Heather Van Slyke.
On the other hand, because she has diabetes, it is important that she is aware of what she's eating. Knowing that an appetizer contributes 600 calories or an entree a full day's worth would definitely alter her decision, and she believes if the information were right in front of diners, some of the best sellers might not sell so well.
Habits are hard to break, and both women said learning to eat healthy at home makes a difference in what kids chose when they're on their own.
Evert can guide her 8-year-old to order milk instead of soda at fast food restaurants. Her older boys, sixth through tenth grade, are influenced by the season — during football and baseball seasons they are more likely to shun the sodas, though they still go for french fries. Point of purchase information might guide them, she thinks.
Van Slyke's 11-year-old son is very conscious of what he eats, because of how the family eats at home and his participation in 4-H foods and nutrition projects.
Her teenage daughter, however, who is very slim, very active in sports and has no health issues, doesn't pay much attention to food choices. Van Slyke doesn't believe calorie counts on vending machines or menus would change that, although she acknowledged that Cassie might have a different answer.