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AHA improves the health and well-being of Wake County residents by facilitating and supporting community initiatives.

On the Menu

Eating out is no longer an occasional treat. About half our food dollar is spent on and a third of our calories are consumed in meals away from home according to the Keystone Forum on Away-From-Home Foods: Opportunities for Preventing Weight Gain and Obesity Report. A number of local governments, including King County in Seattle and New York City, instituted mandatory menu labeling to let consumers know what they were buying as they ordered food in a restaurant several years ago. And now the Affordable Care Act will make that menu labeling law for most chain-type restaurants across the U.S. mandatory.

The big debate is whether or not menu labeling will help. Some say it will – information is important to helping people make smart choices. Some say it won’t – people will order what they like, and often don’t understand that a 1,800-calorie value meal is probably all the calories they need that day. Our populace is not science and health-savvy enough to even know what that means, let alone act on it. My sense is that both hold true – depending on the person. We are not all alike, afterall.

However, a study published this month in the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Journal looked at another change that occurs when menu labeling is instituted- and that is that restaurants make changes to their menus (either decrease portion sizes, substitue ingredients or both) when calories, saturated fat and sodium are posted right there on the menu for all to see. In the case of the restaurants studied in this case, there was a net 7% decrease in calories between time 1 and time 2 from the time menu labeling went into effect, even though calories, saturated fat and sodium still well exceeded what might be desired. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but In the grand scheme of things, American’s calorie consumption on average exceeds recommendations by a small percentage – averaging roughly 200 calories in a day.

When I was with the NC Division of Public Health’s Physical Activity and Nutrition Branch, one of my colleagues evaluated of a now defunct menu labeling program that was implemented in schools called Winner’s Circle. The findings from that evaluation were that while menu labeling really didn’t change what the kids bought from the lunch line, it actually resulted in changes to what was offered.

To me, that’s a win-win. Fewer calories offered, and the consumer didn’t have to think about it too much.

by Sheree Vodicka, MA, RD, LDN; AHA Director

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