Starting next year, a provision in the Affordable Care Act will require chain restaurants across the United States to post calorie labels on their menus to help Americans make healthier decisions when eating out. However, a recent study shows these labels may actually prove ineffective. 

A team of researchers from New York University interviewed patrons at various fast-food chains in New York and New Jersey about their eating habits. They collected their meal receipts to compare the eating habits of patrons who ate at chains with calorie labels and those without them.

Their findings initially indicated that menus with labels helped customers reduce the amount of calories they numed. However, the effect of labels declined over a five-year period, with the results showing there was “no consistent change in the nutritional content of foods and beverages purchased or in how often respondents purchased fast food,” according to the researchers. A report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture further proves this conclusion: Just 8 percent of Americans say they use nutrition information when considering what to order at a restaurant or fast-food chain.

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So what can be done to help Americans make healthier decisions while they’re at the counter? Perhaps menus could include how many minutes of exercise it would take to burn off the calories of a specific item. "People don't really understand what it means to say a typical soda has 250 calories," Sara Bleich, associate professor in the department of Health Policy and Management at Johns Hopkins, told NPR. Bleich says if chains are going to add nutrition information, listing the miles of exercises to burn that item "may be the more persuasive way" to help patrons make healthier choices when ordering.

Roughly two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. The proposal by the Johns Hopkins team could encourage more nutritious eating, but helping consumers make healthier decisions is not a priority for restaurant chains. Based on NYU’s study results, it’s probable that the government’s plan to add calorie labels may lead them back to the drawing board—so it’s up to us as individuals to make healthier decisions. Make sure you always include a salad with every meal, for instance, or commit to choosing grilled over fried foods. You don’t need a food label. Just eat out with your health in mind first.

 

Sources:

  1. New York Magazine: More Bad News for Fans of Menu Calorie Counts
  2. U.S. Department of Agriculture: Calorie Labeling on Restaurant Menus—Who Is Likely to Use It?
  3. Health Affairs: The Complex Relationship Between Diet And Health
  4. NPR: Reality Check: To Burn Off A Soda, You'll Have To Run 50 Minutes
  5. HealthDay: Calorie Counts on Menus May Prompt Healthier Offerings
  6. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: Overweight and Obesity Statistics