FDA-Required Calorie Counts for Fast Food Restaurants Will Not Curb the Obesity Epidemic

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly one third of adults are obese in the United States. In addition, approximately 17% of children and teenagers aged 2-19 are obese. What’s even more shocking is that in 2010, no state had an obesity rate of less than 20%. Health consequences associated with obesity include heart disease, diabetes, cancer, stroke, and high blood pressure.

The public health community has been struggling with solutions to the obesity epidemic. One of the more recent campaigns has been a push to require chain restaurants to list calorie counts on their menus. In the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began the process of requiring menu labeling for “restaurants and similar retail food establishments that are part of a chain with 20 or more locations doing business under the same name and offering for sale substantially the same menu items.” The guidelines were withdrawn and then resubmitted in 2011, and have been a source of controversy ever since.

Menu labeling sounds like a good idea in theory, but the rules are narrow in scope and, in practice, they only have mixed results. Thus, requiring chain restaurants to post calorie counts is a waste of time and taxpayer money. These resources should be focused on developing more comprehensive solutions to the nation’s obesity problem. The government might have more success if it increased its efforts in getting supermarkets in low-income neighborhoods and expanding nutrition education in health clinics and schools.

The FDA rules are problematic for several reasons. For one, exemptions are listed for movie theaters, bowling alleys, amusement parks, and other places where selling food is not the primary aim. Considering how many people eat a bag of popcorn while watching their favorite flick or scarf down a heaping portion of cotton candy while waiting in line for the roller coaster, these locations seem like a great place to help consumers cut their daily calorie intake. Second, congressional leaders in August 2011 asked the FDA to exempt grocery stores from the rules. Many adults looking for a quick meal will head to the prepared foods section of the store. How can they make informed choices when those dishes have no information on calories and nutrition?

Finally, the rules continue to allow calorie ranges such as those used at Chipotle. The ranges for some foods (a burrito between 400-900 calories, for example) are absurd and have been shown to underestimate the true calories in the dish.

New York City, which required menu labeling in 2008, has been the guinea pig for this health experiment. Studies have been inconclusive as to whether the posting of calorie counts makes any difference in consumer behavior. A 2008 Stanford study of a NYC Starbucks found that calorie consumption dropped by 6% after the labels were enacted while studies of fast food outlets have shown no change in buying practices.

One of the main faults I find with restaurant labeling is that it is too limited in scope. While simple math involving calorie intake vs. calories burned can help many people lose weight, there also needs to be a focus on nutrition. Philadelphia, for instance, asked the FDA for exemption from the menu labeling rules because they already require more information in local restaurants. The city rightly claims that levels of sodium, fat, and carbohydrates are crucial in fighting this health crisis. Not to mention that the rules only cover restaurants with 20 outlets or more. This restriction targets high levels of obesity in low-income and minority populations but does nothing for other overweight individuals who frequent their local diner or favorite high-end restaurant. Furthermore, many individuals in inner city communities don’t have access to supermarkets and instead have to eat at fast food outlets. What’s the point of listing calorie counts in these locations if the only other option the consumer has is the equally unhealthy corner convenience store?

Public health researchers are already searching for other answers. Take, for instance, a study that was released in the February 8 edition of the journal Health Affairs. At a Chinese restaurant, diners were asked whether they wanted to downsize their sides of noodles and rice. About 1/3 of the diners did, saving at least 200 calories. The diners also ate less overall compared to those who ordered a full serving. Media outlets have responded by touting “downsizing” as a possible cure for our “supersize”-focused generation.

Will downsizing be the next craze to hit restaurants? Who knows. Retail labeling is also gaining ground with Wal-Mart set to unveil a “Great For You” label that will help its customers choose healthier food options. The problem is that packaged foods have long carried nutrition labels, yet macaroni and cheese, frozen pizza, and potato chips are still unhealthy staples in many homes. The average consumer knows that McDonald’s is fattening but continues to eat it. In short, consumers are going to eat what they want, when they want it.

I agree that the obesity epidemic is a huge problem facing our country. I also believe that all foods can be part of a healthy lifestyle, when enjoyed in moderation. But pointing fingers at specific entities – restaurants, food companies – takes a lot of the blame away from the consumer. As long as this continues, the solution to the obesity problem will continue to elude us.

Photo Credit: akasped

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Amy Fuller

Amy Fuller is a global health and environmental specialist working in the food and agriculture sector. She holds a dual Masters in Public Health and Environmental Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. She has worked at Annie's, PepsiCo, and the Clinton Global Initiative, among others. Amy is thrilled to be living in the Bay Area where she can indulge her passions for food, photography, and the outdoors.

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