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 calorie allowance for a 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.

 ‘Healthy’ options

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.

“It absolutely helps me make better, more informed choices,” wrote Sheryl Camp on the Rolla Daily News Facebook page. “I don't believe it would make my kids make better choices, unless I still had young ones and required certain choices.”

Holly Redmond believes people know what they’re getting into when they chose to eat at fast food restaurants.

“I would just like to know who goes to a fast food place and actually thinks it's healthy anyway?” said Redmond. “I would just like to know who goes to a fast food place and actually thinks it's healthy anyway? Putting the nutrition info out there really isn't going to change the reason you go- it's quick, it's cheap and yes, even if it's utter crap, it's tasty. I feel reasonably sure that those who over-indulge probably don't throw down a few Big Macs thinking, ‘Well gorsh, there's lettuce on it, it MUST be good for me.’ As a nutritionist, I find it to be moderately interesting information, but apart from that, nothing all that shocking or informative. Like I said, I'm not eating at Taco Bell or whatever for the health benefits. When I do that, I do it at home. We'll see in a year or so if the obesity and diabetes rates have dropped. I somehow doubt that, highly. The information has always been there — if you care to look for it. People simply don't.”

Walt Fulps pointed out that at least one local restaurant has already started putting calorie counts on its menus. Those calorie counts were enough to make him change his mind before ordering.

“I went to Panera a few weeks ago and started to order a caramel latte, and then I noticed the calorie count right next to it on the menu board,” said Fulps. “It was like eating a couple of candy bars, it turns out, and I changed my mind. So, assuming I'm a typical human being, yes, it will definitely help people make informed decisions about their dietary choices. Yelling about the ‘nanny state’ or laughing about how people should already know that certain foods aren't healthy isn't a good argument against this. Yes, I know a huge cheeseburger may not be good for me, but if I see it has 1,500 calories and 50 grams of fat, that's information I can actually use. There's nothing wrong with more information.”

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 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.

A New York University research study had different results.

NYU researchers found about 28 percent of New York City customers who saw calorie labeling indicated the information influenced their choices. However, the participants’ receipts showed they purchased about the same amount of calories before the labeling went into effect and the same amount as consumers where labeling was not required.

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.”