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Red Light / Green Light
Researchers in Australia recently assessed an even simpler way to present calorie information: using traffic light imagery (Appetite 2013;67:8-15). Almost 1,300 adults responded to an online survey asking them to imagine they were choosing their evening meal from a sample fast food menu.
Calories vs. Minutes
If you live in the United States, there's a good chance that you've already seen calorie information listed on a restaurant menu. The state of California and both Philadelphia and New York City already require it, and many restaurants are already doing it voluntarily.
Chain Restaurant Madness
I have laid a lot at the feet of the fast food industry as far as their contribution to the problem with obesity, overweight, heart disease, diabetes and cancer. I do believe that they have a tremendous responsibility to make changes that help their customers eat better. I have been critical as well of the soft drink companies, but there's an amazing issue with freestanding chain restaurants.
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You know they're coming: nutrition information on restaurant menus. The federal government has mandated that all restaurants with 20 or more locations must add the number of calories contained in an item to their menus by December 1, 2016. Further, more detailed information, including calories from fat, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, fiber, sugars, and protein must be available to consumers upon written request.
The stated reason for adding nutrition information to restaurant menus is to "help consumers make informed and healthful dietary choices," but it was prompted in part by the rise in obesity, and in practical terms seems intended to help people choose fewer calories. Whether it will actually do either of those things has been explored in a fair amount of research, but results have been fairly poor, with several studies concluding that nutrition labeling has little to no impact on what people purchase. These studies have been no more than a few months in length, however.
With that in mind, researchers at Cornell University teamed up with their university's dining services to look at on-campus purchasing patterns (Appetite 2015;92:7-14). At the start of the Spring semester of 2008, Cornell added nutrition information to over 60 of their "FreshTake" meals and snacks. These are pre-packaged meal and snack items that are sold from refrigerated units inside the university's retail food outlets. Cornell Dining was able to provide the researchers with detailed sales information for these meals and snacks for the three semesters before the nutrition labels were added as well as the three semesters after they were added.
They controlled for variations in product availability by excluding 13 products that were not sold at every location. They also standardized the number of weeks in each semester by excluding the weeks of fall or spring break and weeks including holidays such as Thanksgiving or during the last week of the Spring semester (when people are presumably moving away from campus at various points). Food locations that were intermittently closed for construction were also excluded.
This left the authors of the study with 45 labeled items and 12 weeks per semester. The food items were grouped into "high-calorie," "low-calorie," "high-fat," and "low-fat" foods, with the comparison of high versus low being within the group of foods (i.e., a "high-calorie" food is considered high in calories compared to the other 44 items). Along with looking at whether the absolute number of units sold of each food increased or decreased, they also looked at the number of calories purchased by each person as well as the amount of fat.
Their research shows that the average weekly number of calories purchased by the students fell from ~476 calories to ~445 calories - about 6.5-7%. The amount of fat in the foods they purchased also fell, from ~21 grams to about ~19.9 grams - a drop of 7.4%.
You might think that cutting calories by so little isn't going to make a big dent in people's weight, and that's true - at least, in the short term. Small changes such as these, however, are key to long-term, sustainable dietary change. When you eat out, look for that nutrition information, and use it, if it's available. If it's not, ask. If enough people ask, restaurants that are not required to implement the labels may choose to do it in response to consumer requests. Small changes can make a big difference.
First posted: July 29, 2015