Sticker shock: More vending machines, restaurants to display calorie info – but will it change Americans' habits?

Lisa Yates @Lisa_editor
Big Mac, large Coke, large fries

A Big Mac, a large Coke and large fries has 1,360 calories — more than three times the recommended calorie allowance for a meal.

Public health officials hope seeing calorie counts like these on restaurant menus and vending machines will lead consumers to make healthier food choices and help reduce obesity in America. But as Americans increasingly opt for meals outside the home, the battle's quickly becoming uphill.

'Healthy' options

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 requires restaurants with 20 or more locations to post calorie counts on menus. According to the Food and Drug Administration, 280,000 of the United State's 600,000 restaurants will be subject to the new regulations.

In September, McDonald's was one of the first large fast food chains to roll out the new menus.

Starting in 2013, the American Beverage Association is launching its Calories Count program with Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, where calorie information will be posted on vending machines. The program is first rolling out in a few cities, then going nation-wide.

Whether the up-front information will lead to healthier choices is still up for debate.

Natasha Graves, a nurse from Darrow with three children ages 16, 14, and 9, said she thinks posting calorie counts will lead to healthier food choices for adults, but not so much for children.

"I don't believe adding calorie counts to vending machines and restaurant menus will help children make better choices," she said. "Children learn by example. It is more important for their parents to show and teach them how to eat healthier through their lifestyles."

Graves said posting calorie counts on vending machines and restaurant menus is a good idea.

"I think if people were more aware of their calorie consumption it would help them make much better food choices," she said. "It would bring to light foods people may believe are healthy that may not be as healthy as they thought and vice versa."

Obesity is a problem locally for both children and adults, according to Graves. She said our sedentary lifestyle contributes to the problem.

"Becoming obese doesn't happen overnight," she said. "It happens over time when the energy we taken in by eating is not in balance with the energy we burn from physical activity."

Carey Long, author of "Real Life Fitness" and Director of Training for Spectrum Fitness Southdown's, agreed. He said most Americans don't get an average of 15-60 minutes of rigourous activity recommended to stay healthy.

Long said he was in favor of the new calorie count regulations.

"Where I think this information will be helpful is that it allows each customer to understand exactly how many calories they consume each day from certain foods they love," he said. "Average healthy weight loss begins with 250 (2/ 12-ounce sodas) calories cut out each day along with burning 250 calories per day. We are a fast food nation; and, this will also help fitness and health experts because we can tell clients exactly what 250-500 calories look like from the restaurants they frequent and other foods that should be avoided. It also helps to keep vending machine and restaurant owners accountable for quantity and quality standards within the foods they sell."

Long said most people don't focus on the calorie content of the food they eat, unless they are health care or fitness professionals.

"What posting calories in a certain food does is it allows the consumer to be informed with each choice they make," he said. "Ultimately they still need to accept responsibility for their own health and this helps in that process. It is a common occurrence even for people that exercise to 'reward' themselves with heavy calorie food and drink after a workout. The issue here is that we burn far less calories during exercise and consume way more calories than we think we do."

He said 40 percent of added sugar in the American diet comes from the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, more than any other food source. Long said these extra calories contribute to not only to obesity, but also dental problems.

"Two regular sodas per day have between 200-300 calories," he said. "Multiply that by 365 for days in a year (73,000 calories for 200 cals per day extra; and, 109,500 for 300 calories per day extra); divide by 3,500 for calories per pound and you get 20.8 extra pounds per year at 200 calories extra per day; and, 31.2 pounds at 300 calories extra per day from sodas."

He explained just how much exercise is required to burn those calories on a video at www.weeklycitizen.com.

Long said it's important for parents to take an active roll in their children's health, making sure they are physically active, heatlthy and successful.

"They are responsible until their children are old enough to start making those decisions independently," he said.

Balance is a key factor to leading a healthy lifestyle, according to Long.

"I am a believer in balance in life between work and play," he said. "My most successful friends and clients have found the gray area that works best for them. I love french fries and I eat them on occasion. I also drink three to five diet sodas a week, not regular sodas per day. Start moving as a family a little more and pay attention to calories in your food. Eat a regular hamburger, not the triple hamburger, and go with the small fry instead of the super-sized."

The percentage of calories Americans consume away from home has almost doubled since the late 1970s, according to the USDA Economic Research Service — and it's affecting our health and waistlines.

A study from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute published in 2004 indicated young adults who eat frequently at fast food restaurants gain more weight and have a greater increase in insulin resistance in early middle age.

Insulin resistance is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes, and diabetes is a major risk factor for heart disease.

Expanding awareness, waistlines

As Americans' eating out habits have increased, so has the nation's obesity rate.

The percentage of children in the United States who were obese increased from 7 percent in 1980 to almost 20 percent in 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Adolescents saw a similar increase.

More than one-third of U.S. adults are obese, resulting in about $147 billion in health care costs in 2008, according to the CDC.

Stephanie Mills, M.D., president and CEO of Franciscan Health and Wellness Services, in partnership with St. Elizabeth Hospital, said calorie awareness is important for addressing overeating in America.

"We believe it's important to give individuals the information they need to make healthy choices," she said. "Becoming more informed and aware about healthier food options is an important first step to changing behaviors. Sometimes we need that eye-opening reminder that a hamburger, fries, and soft drink can have over 1,200 calories to cause us to stop and look at other options."

Whether the calorie shock will truly dissuade consumers from ordering high-calorie, high-fat foods remains to be seen.

Two major university studies have shown conflicting results of posting calories counts on menus.

A Stanford study of Starbucks consumers showed a 6 percent decrease in calorie consumption when food calorie counts were posted on menus.

A New York University research study had different results.

NYU researchers found about 28 percent of New York City customers who saw calorie labeling indicated the information influenced their choices. However, the participants' receipts showed they purchased about the same amount of calories before the labeling went into effect and the same amount as consumers where labeling was not required.

Dr. Mills acknowledged the dilema these conflicting studies illustrate.

"There is significant debate on a national level about this," she said. "We believe it's an important first step in awareness, so consumers can make the choices that are right for them. It may also play a crucial role in changing the culture of how we order and eat in America. As it stands today, what you don't know doesn't hurt you. The idea is to have better information about what we eat which will hopefully lead us to make better choices.

Claudia Cormier, a registered dietitian and Healthy Lives™ Health Coach, said it's important for young people to have good information.

"Providing kids with basic skills about healthy eating and living an active life is important," she said. "It's not always easy to break our habits and adopt healthier ones. It is important to lead by example and encourage and involve your children along the way. Children will model the behavior of their parents and if you make it fun and a family activity, it also counts as quality family time."

Cormier said to examine the facts to determine whether or not soda contributes to the obesity problem in this country.

"You decide," she said. "A 12-ounce serving of a carbonated, sweetened soft drink has the equivalent of about 10 teaspoons of sugar; and, 60-80 percent of school age children consume at least one soft drink daily. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, kids who drink at least one soft drink daily have a 60 percent increase in the risk of becoming obese. Intake of sweetened soft drinks is also associated with increased rates of dental cavities and calcium deficiencies due to the decreased milk intake."

She said for many people, the switch to a calorie free beverage can be an easy way to reduce calories and body weight.

Dr. Mills said many companies are responding to the obesity epidemic and are offering wellness programs to their employees.

"Take advantage of these offerings and help share what you learn with your family," she suggested. "Check into the many local and online resources available to help you lead a healthier, more active lifestyle and choose the ones that work for you."