Restaurant Calorie Shock to go Nationwide

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Really, that many calories?Beginning in 2011, restaurant chains with 20 or more retail stores will be required to disclose menu calorie counts on their food items, as well as a posted reminder of the Agriculture Department’s recommended 2,000-calorie daily intake. Also required are labels on food items in vending machines, drive-through restaurants, food coupons, buffets, and cocktail drink menus.

The new federal law means that even if a restaurant chain has only a few outlets in one state, the mandated menu labeling is still required if they have 20 or more locations with the same name nationwide. The chains will not have to post calorie information for daily specials or limited offers.

The new requirement is inclusive in President Obama’s recently passed health care legislation; the government’s stated goal is to aid American families in their own health decisions with nutrition and prevention information. The new federal rules are patterned after already existing initiatives in New York, Oregon, California, New Jersey, and scores other cities and states across the nation, but the federal mandate will trump previous state and city rules.

“People will be able to see that the order of chili cheese fries they are considering will be 3,000 calories,” said nutrition advocate Margo Wootan, who helped write the bill.

Health conscious customers may think twice about those chili cheese fries when they realize that in one fell swoop they’d be 1,000 calories over the Agriculture Department’s recommended 2,000-calorie intake for the entire day.

The National Restaurant Association — who lobbied against menu labeling on state initiatives — backed the federal mandate to avoid conflicting requirements adopted by various states and cities. As Sue Hensley, a spokeswoman for the NRA points out: “The association and the industry were supportive because consumers will see the same types of information in more than 200,000 restaurant locations across the country.”

“I think it is an historic development,” said Kelly D. Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale. Consumers spend more than half their food dollars outside of the home, he said, “and when people eat away from home they eat more and they eat worse. And part of the reason may be because they don’t know what’s in fast foods, and they’re often shocked to find out.”

To get an idea of the impact that 3,000 calorie order of chili cheese fries would have in your daily diet, let’s calculate what’s known as your basal metabolic rate — the amount of calories you body burns just to keep your heart and lungs working.

Generally speaking, men burn more calories per day than women, but to arrive at a crude but simple estimate of your basal metabolic rate, multiply your body weight times 10, and then add that sum to your body weight. In other words, if you weigh 120 lbs, the equation is 120 x 10 = 1,200 + 2 x 120 = 1,440. That means that all calories consumed over 1,440 will turn to fat — unless you increase your level of physical activity. Suddenly that 560 calorie Big Mac takes on new meaning. And remember, it order to lose one pound you must burn off 3500 calories.

Not everyone is pleased by the new menu mandate. “Frankly, it seems to me that whether I’m buying an apple or a Big Mac from McDonald’s, if they want to sell it to me without any information, I have a perfect right to buy it,” said Sam Kazman, general counsel for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market advocacy group. “This simply is not a federal issue.”

Based on a study by researchers at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, people who used the calorie information available at fast-food chain restaurants in New York City bought 106 fewer calories’ worth of food at lunch than those who didn’t see or use the calorie counts, but only 15% of customers say they used the information.

The study also revealed that the overall calories purchased decreased at nine food chains, and dropped significantly at McDonald’s, Au Bon Pain, KFC and Starbucks.

Panera Bread has already included calorie information on its menu boards at its 585 company-owned stores, way ahead of the 2011 mandate. Denny’s has created a Fit Fare menu, and Applebee’s has added new items to its Under 500 Calorie menu.

The question is, will anyone enforce this new mandate. A recent study revealed that some individual restaurant items listed on menus contained up to 200% of the stated caloric values, with side dishes having 245% more of the stated values than the entrees they accompanied.

According to the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, a study of major chain restaurants found 29 quick-serve and sit-down restaurant foods averaged 18 percent more of the stated caloric values on menus — and frozen grocery store dinners had eight per cent more calories than the labels stated.

Some experts claim that it could take up to two years before the menu guidelines are actually issued. In mean time, we can have fun pretending ignorance is bliss at our favorite restaurant. Bon Appétit.

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Spence Cooper
Inquisitive foodie with a professional investigative background and strong belief in the organic farm to table movement. Author of Bad Seeds: A FriendsEAT Guide to GMO's. Buy Now!
Spence Cooper

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