Nourished Living by Dietician Kelly Hamlin MA, RD, CDN

How many of you eat out once in a while, at least once or twice a month? Did you know that eating out provides approximately one-third of the calories in the diets of Americans?

Here’s another question. Would you make different choices when eating out if you had easy-to-use nutritional information provided to you prior to placing your order?

Enter the Restaurant Labeling Law. Going back to March of 2010, the federal government adopted a menu labeling law as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act 1, an act which was upheld by the Supreme Court in June of 2012.

This law requires that large chain restaurants and similar retail food establishments, and certain owners and operators of vending machines, post calorie information on their menus or machines, and make other nutrition information available upon request.

The law also restricts what menu labeling laws state and local governments may adopt. 

This law applies to chain restaurants and establishments with 20 or more locations nationally, and vending machine owners or operators with 20 or more vending machines that dispense food or drinks.

The law requires that the calorie content for each standard menu item or food be displayed on all menus, that the menu provide information on the total daily recommended calories, and that written information be available on request providing the complete nutrient content—per serving—of menu items.

The goal, of course, is to encourage consumers to make healthier, informed food choices.

In 2008, New York City became the first U.S. city to mandate that fast food chains post nutrition information on their menus.

Kings County and a handful of other areas followed suit.

OK, so there is all that background information. But has the labeling been effective at helping people eat fewer calories?

A study conducted in Kings County, where investigators reviewed menus at 11 sit-down restaurants and 26 quick-serve chains, found that the majority of entrées were still very high in calories, saturated fats, and sodium as compared to dietary guidelines.

According to the study, 56 percent of entrees exceeded the recommended level for one-third of an adult’s daily needs, 77 percent of the entrées exceeded the guidelines for saturated fats, and almost 90 percent exceeded the sodium guidelines.

Yes, there were improvements, but there is still a long way to go. Those are pretty hefty servings for adults. (Please note that this is just one study.)

In comparing calorie counts per entrée prior to and after the law went into effect, investigators identified a decline of 41 calories.

That may not sound like much, but it is an improvement and it is statistically significant. For an adult, 41 fewer calories could translate into several pounds lost over a year’s time.

The goal of the investigators was to determine whether individual menu items had been reformulated to improve their nutritional profiles.

How did the meals stack up compared to what we should all be aiming for in a good diet?

They compared the nutritional values of entrées at the restaurants in their study to U.S. Department of Agriculture dietary guidelines.

What they found in Washing-ton was that 18 months after the law went into effect,  calorie counts were a bit lower.

“Sit-down” chain restaurants did better than fast food establishments as their entrées were an average of 73 calories lighter, versus a small 19 calorie reduction at fast food places.

But with all this said, I think we are seeing more restaurants—sit-down or fast food—offering healthier fare. Personally, I think having the nutritional information for foods/meals on a menu is a great idea.

What everyone needs to keep in mind is that the law is not all about the calories. Part of the law is that the restaurant has to have the nutrient content of meals available for customers.

This nutrition information can be extremely helpful for those of us with chronic medical conditions.

People with diabetes will have a better idea of carbohydrate counts, people on reduced sodium diets will have the milligrams of sodium available, people with heart issues can keep track of fat intake, etc. It’s a benefit to a lot of people, not just dieters.

Another new angle being explored to encourage reduced caloric intake at restaurants is the displaying, on the menu, of the minutes of brisk walking one must engage in to burn food calories.

Holy Cow! Can you imagine looking at a menu and seeing you’d need to walk an extra amount of miles to burn off that meal?! That’s enough to decrease one’s appetite!

For example, a female would have to walk briskly for approximately two hours to burn the calories in a quarter-pound double cheeseburger.

We all have to ask ourselves, is it really worth it?

I often hear people complain that they don’t want to know how many calories are in foods and they don’t agree with calories being on menus.

But statistics from the American Heart Association show that among Americans ages 20 and older, 154.7 million are overweight or obese.

That’s 79.9 million men and 74.8 million women.

Maybe we should all appreciate every little bit of help and guidance we can get.

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