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Calorie counts on menu boards may help us eat less

Below is my latest blog post “Calorie counts on menu boards may help us eat less.”

You can also read it on Huffington Post by clicking HERE.

After much anticipation, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finally announced its final regulations requiring food establishments with 20 or more locations, including restaurants, fast-food chains, movie theaters, and pizza places, to state the number of calories in their menu items. And those calories will be visible; the font size of the calorie counts must be, at least, the same size as the food item name and/or price.

The regulations came out of a 2010 provision of Obamacare. Americans spend nearly half their food budget on foods eaten away from home, and these foods make up nearly a third of the calories consumed. We ought to know how many calories are in these foods.

New York City, California, Vermont, many New York State counties, Philadelphia, King County (WA), and others have already implemented calorie labeling policies. And a handful of restaurants, such as McDonald’s, Au Bon Pain, and Panera already post calories on menu boards nationally.

Next year when these rules are set to take effect nationally, if you go to a movie theater, you will see how many calories are in your oversize jug of soda and a bucket of popcorn, both large enough to feed an entire family. I hope that after seeing this information, you will consider skipping these treats or sharing them.

FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg said in the press release: “Making calorie information available on chain restaurant menus and vending machines is an important step for public health that will help consumers make informed choices for themselves and their families.”

Will posting calories actually help us make better choices and eat less?

While the evidence is mixed, I remain optimistic and so do other nutrition policy experts.

New York City has required chain eating establishments to post calorie counts on menu boards since 2006. As a New York City resident, I have been able to see some of the results. I recall seeing one of my favorite Starbucks treats, the marshmallow dream bar, originally contain around 400 calories when posting calories first went into effect. Today, at my local Starbucks, the treat weighs in at 240 calories.

I hope that requiring eating establishments to post calories will encourage companies to make their products smaller and reformulate them to contain less fat, sugar, and ultimately fewer calories.

Some companies, in addition to Starbucks, are already marketing healthier choices, perhaps, at least in part, as a result of calorie labeling, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nutrition advocacy group in Washington D.C. Several popular chains have introduced smaller portions on their menus, such as: California Pizza Kitchen’s “Small Cravings,” The Cheesecake Factory’s “Small Plates & Snacks,” and T.G.I. Friday’s “Right Portion, Right Price.” Other eating establishments cut calories from some of its menu items. The chain Cosi, for example, introduced a new “Lighten Up! Menu,” featuring lower-calorie versions of menu items.

And if we have absolutely no idea how many calories our favorite foods contain, we sure will know when calorie counts are posted at our favorite eating chains nationwide.

Marion Nestle , my NYU colleague, author, and nutrition policy expert says “Calorie counts work for people who look at them and understand what they mean. They certainly work for me. If I see that a slice of pizza is 750 calories (not impossible), I don’t buy it. That’s more than a third of what I can eat in a day. Everyone is always saying that education is the first line of intervention in obesity and that people have to take personal responsibility for what they eat. Calorie labeling ought to help with that.”

Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at CSPI, issued a similar sentiment. She told me that “Menu labeling will allow people to make their own choices about what and how much to eat. It also provides an incentive for restaurants to improve their menus and add items lower in calories. Unfortunately, most restaurants’ regular and children’s menus are dominated by high calorie choices that are hard to fit into a healthy diet, especially given how much most people eat out these days.”

It is my hope that when adopted nationwide, requiring chain eating establishments to post calorie counts of our favorite foods will help us make better food choices and order smaller sizes while also encouraging these establishments to market healthier options with fewer calories. And, we can do as Dr. Nestle does: don’t buy foods that comprise a third of our daily calorie budget. These are certainly steps in the right direction to help reverse the obesity epidemic.

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Americans eating less fast food!

Below is my latest blog post for Huffington Post.

You can also read it here.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported some good news for nutrition activists and others hoping to help Americans eat healthier. A new study found that American adults are consuming fewer calories from fast food than they were several years ago.

In 2006, American consumed approximately 13 percent of calories from fast food. Data from 2010 found that adults consumed about 11 percent of their daily calories from fast food. This data included foods such as hamburgers and French fries, known for their high fat content. This is certainly a step in the right direction. Especially since two-thirds of American adults are either overweight or obese.

Here are some additional findings from the study:

  • Heavier people ate more calories from fast food than people who are normal weight.
  • Blacks consumed more fast food calories than both whites and Hispanics.
  • Black adults ages 20 to 39 had the highest rates of fast food consumption.
  • Americans 60 and over ate less fast food than younger adults ages 20 to 39.

During this time, caloric intake among adults did not change during these years.

A separate study reported that caloric intake among kids has decreased, revealing some more good news. This is the first decline in calorie intake among kids in more than 40 years.

Efforts such as first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Campaign may be paying off.
As I told the Christian Science Monitor, “The take-home message is that public education messages to eat less [fast food] are working … We are shifting toward healthier options.”

Here are some thoughts that I share with USA Today, “Fast-food places continue to sell high-calorie items — many meals contain half a day’s worth of calories — but they are offering some lower-calorie items as well. Get the smallest size possible of everything from burgers to fries to soda so that you take in the fewest calories.”

Additional tips that I share with clients are:

  • Drink water instead of the soda.
  • Skip the double and triple burgers.
  • Order a salad with dressing on the side.
  • Share.
  • Eat slowly.
  • Enjoy your company.

You’d be surprised, but these small changes do add up.

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Weight of the Nation 2012

I am delighted to be at the 2012 Weight of The Nation Conference in Washington DC sponsored by the Center for Disease Control (CDC). The purpose of this important conference is to bring together policy makers, educators, health professionals, media, and public health leaders to share key obesity prevention priorities and to present policy and environmental approaches that show promise for improving the nation’s health. The theme,” Moving Forward, Reversing the Trend,” is illustrated through informative and thought provoking presentations emphasizing how we can work together to promote healthy eating and active living for all Americans.

This morning,  in the presence of a huge crowd, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released its latest report Accelerating Progress in Obesity Prevention: Solving the Weight of the Nation . It focuses on five critical goals for preventing obesity:

— Integrating physical activity into people’s lives

— Making healthy foods and beverages available everywhere

— Transforming marketing messages about nutrition and activity

— Galvanizing health care professionals and employers to support healthy living

— Making schools a gateway for healthy weights

Several members of the committee highlighted specific strategies and obesity prevention recommendations to identify how we can work together most effectively in our communities to reduce the nation’s obesity crisis.

This report is released at an important time as the obesity epidemic is a major public health crisis and the food environment is not conducive to weight loss for most of us. Food is available 24-7, portion sizes are huge, and the food industry spends mega bucks marketing sugar, fat, and calorie laden junk food.

At the conference’s opening plenary on Monday morning, the CDC in conjunction with Duke University and RTI International released a new paper just published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine on obesity forecasts through 2030. The forecasting study found that 42% of the US population could be obese by 2030, suggesting that our healthcare system could be burdened with 32 million more obese individuals within just two decades. According to the researchers, action is needed to keep rates from increasing further.

For the good news, the report found that keeping obesity rates level could save nearly $550 billion over two decades. Hopefully, this thought provoking conference will inspire its attendees to work together to reverse the obesity epidemic. The action steps highlighted throughout the conference will hopefully help us speed up the progress to combat the current obesity crisis.

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