RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Shock and awe will be on the menu in places like California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Philadelphia this year as cities, counties, and states join the ranks of New York City and Seattle in mandating that chain restaurants post calorie content clearly on menus. (That's right: Ruby Tuesday's Colossal Burger is 2,014 calories!) And a new study released this week is the first of its kind to suggest that these labeled menus may lead to significantly lower calorie content in the restaurant meals purchased for children. "It's about having the information at the point of purchase. Many restaurants do provide info on tray liners, posters by the bathroom, or online. But it's not helpful for consumers if they can't take it into account when they're ordering," explains lead study author Pooja Tandon, MD, research fellow at Seattle Children's Research Institute and the University of Washington School of Medicine.
THE DETAILS: Researchers surveyed 99 parents of 3- to 6-year-olds in the Seattle area who said they sometimes grab dinner at a fast-food restaurant, asking them to order from sample McDonald's menus that included current prices and pictures of the food items. Half of the parents' menus also displayed clearly marked calorie information for each item. The parents with calorie information on the menu ordered 102 fewer calories on average for their children, compared to those that did not have the calorie info. That's about a 20 percent decrease in calories. "Even modest calorie adjustments on a regular basis can avert weight gain and lead to better health over time. Just an extra 100 calories per day may equate to about 10 pounds of weight gain per year," explains Dr. Tandon. "Our national childhood obesity epidemic has grown right alongside our fast-food consumption. Anything we can do to help families make more positive choices could make a difference." The study will appear in a February edition of the medical journal Pediatrics.
WHAT IT MEANS: Previous studies have shown mixed results when it comes to what adults order when calories are prominently displayed. The good news in this study is that while calorie content didn't affect parents' food choices for themselves, having the calories of food items clearly displayed did compel them to order healthier food for their children. And this in-your-face calorie wake-up call could be coming to a location near you. Currently more than 30 municipalies or states are considering policies that would require calories and other nutrition information to be clearly visible—not hidden on a poster by the bathroom door, inside a brochure, or online. Federal menu-labeling standards have also been discussed as part of healthcare reform legislation.
Another potential benefit of nutritional labeling? Putting all the calories on the table may motivate restaurants to rethink their menus. "Restaurants could change what they offer," explains Dr. Tandon. "They could reformulate what's on the menu or offer more healthy choices as part of their menu." So even if individuals don't change what they order based on information on the menu board, a change in what's offered may decrease calorie consumption.
For information on menu labeling, including current bills under consideration and a menu-labeling map, visit the Center for Science in the Public Interest website.
In the meantime, here are 10 ways adults can avoid fast-food-calorie overkill for themselves and their kids, plus a trio of healthier swaps to get you started.