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Will Restaurants' Posting Nutrition Info Help Fight Obesity?

From left to right: California Medical Association President Dr. Richard Frankenstein, California Department of Public Health Chief Deputy Director Dr. Bonnie Sorensen, Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Assembly member Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord). (Photo courtesy of Peter Grigsby, Office of the Governor)

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was all smiles last week as he signed legislation making his state the first to require chain restaurants (such as Chili's and the like) to post nutrition data about the foods they serve on menus and on signs inside the restaurants.

The law is intended to help fight obesity by giving customers information they need to make smarter food choices. A like-minded law went into effect in New York City this spring. (Here's what some folks polled by SELF magazine had to say about how that law has -- or hasn't -- affected their eating habits.) Various cities, states and counties -- including the District of Columbia and Montgomery County -- across the country are mulling similar measures. And in late September, two U.S. Senators introduced a bill calling for a national requirement and standards for restaurant-food labeling, much like the packaged-food labeling system that's been in place for decades (which I write about in today's "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" nutrition column in the Health section); a comparable bill was introduced in the House last week. The National Restaurant Association would prefer that blanket approach to the piecemeal one now underway.

I am a big fan of information. But I'm not yet convinced that these programs are going to make a dent in the nation's obesity program.

Those of us who eat at chain restaurants (and we probably all do once in a while) have a pretty good idea that a plate of spare ribs dripping in barbecue sauce is likely to have more calories and fat than, say, a plate of grilled chicken prepared at home, where you can decide what you add. Now, it may help to know the calorie counts of alternative salad dressings or of grilled as opposed to fried chicken. But if it's ribs you're hankering for, how likely are you to be swayed to choose otherwise by the calorie count on the menu?

The requirement that restaurants post nutrition data in order to keep people from getting fat suggests to me that if people had enough information about what they're putting in their mouths, they'd make wise choices more often. Maybe that works sometimes: I can imagine going to a restaurant, choosing the plate of ribs in full knowledge of how many calories they contain, and then budgeting the rest of my daily calories accordingly. (Here's some useful information from the National Restaurant Association about making good food choices while eating out.)

But there's lots and lots of information about food and calories and fat and salt out there, and so far it doesn't seem to be helping people lose weight on a grand scale.

I will be eager to see, after these new laws have some time to have an impact on eating habits, whether there is a downtick in obesity.

In the meantime, I think the onus should be on individuals to be realistic. We all know, deep in our hearts, what kinds of food -- fruits, vegetables, lean meat and fish, low-fat dairy, lots of whole grains and fiber -- are good for us. And we all know, deep in our hearts, that the plate of ribs, though delicious and wonderful as a once-in-a-while treat, isn't likely on that list.

Where do you fall on this issue? Do you think we need nutrition data posted in restaurants?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  October 7, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nutrition and Fitness  
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The point of the initiative, and the headline of your article, is that posting nutrition info will HELP fight obesity. Noboby's claiming that it alone can or will reduce prevalence levels.

Obesity is a complex issue with multple causes and drivers, and solving it will require an equally broad and multi-level response. No single initiative will achieve much by itself in terms of slimming down the nation, but when combined into a comprehensive and long-term action plan, it can very well lead to that 'downtick' that we'd all like to see.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 7, 2008 9:20 AM | Report abuse

In addition to the points made by Anonymous, posted nutrition information becomes important when consumers believe they are making a healthy choice but actually are not. For example, many salads at certain restaurant chains are loaded with cheese, eggs, bacon bits, creamy dressing, etc, which results in even more fat and calories than, say, a small hamburger from the same chain. Most people probably would not expect this to be the case, and if they are mistakenly picking the salad in an effort to eat healthily, they would greatly benefit from nutrition information available on menus and menu boards.

Posted by: Emily | October 7, 2008 9:42 AM | Report abuse

I don't think posting calories and nutritional information will do much to fight obesity, but it will make it easier for thin people to stay that way.

I find nutrition/calorie postings to be helpful when eating out, but I care about staying within a diet. If you don't really care then you won't be reading it anyway.

Maybe being required to report on this will push restaurants towards menus that aren't quite so fat driven. Some resturants already post counts on their web sites. But don't look for the Cheesecake Factory! That bastion of large portions and fatty sauces doesn't dare post their information.

What nutritional posting doesn't do the economy may. Already at several fast food places there are smaller sized sandwiches for less. I think that's more about the money than the calories.

Posted by: RoseG | October 7, 2008 10:01 AM | Report abuse

I don't think it's going to matter. People who are obese obviously don't care anyway. Those who do care aren't eating at those restaurants. People have just gotten too lazy to prepare meals at home and prefer to dig into the high fat, high salt, high calorie meals. Did anybody see that movie 'Supersize Me' where the guy ate three meals a day at McDonalds and gained about 18 pounds in a month? The very idea of Mickey Dees three times a day makes me gag.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 7, 2008 10:31 AM | Report abuse

My hope would be that if people would happen to glance at the nutritional info, that it might cause them to wonder if those numbers were a lot or a little and that they would become interested in what was in their food.

I know personally, I always make an effort to scout out a menu online before-hand in order to decide where I want to eat. But that's no use with some restaurants like the Cracker Barrel.

Posted by: Steve | October 7, 2008 11:39 AM | Report abuse

can you please start making these article printer friendly? it would be so nice.

Posted by: faye | October 7, 2008 11:59 AM | Report abuse

The research is clear than people who are faced with the actual calories in their food will most often make a lower-calorie choice, which is WHY these restaurants have not posted this information in the past! they are afraid they will lose customers, or lose money because people will stop ordering appetizer, entree, and dessert. Solving the obesity crisis is complex, but people are swayed by caloric information, and moreso, the restaurants will see a significant increase in pressure from their customers to bring down the calorie content in those ribs (it is possible!), or face fewer customers and smaller bills.

Posted by: Kathie | October 7, 2008 12:02 PM | Report abuse

"People who are obese obviously don't care anyway"....hmmmmmmmm while many may not, some do. As a post gastric bypass person, I don't think that porviding the nutritional information will sway someone who is hell bent on the fried chicken or the ribs but it will provide options to someone, like me, who has fat and sugar restrictions and protein goals. I like knowing my options, I like HAVING options. I made a choice to live by a restricted diet for the rest of my life and the 170 pounds I lost was worth it but yeah, I like knowing if I can REALLY eat something I thought I could or get a pleasant surprise on something I thought I couldn't. I don't buy food in a grocery store anymore without reading the nutritional label. It would be nice to have that same information on a menu.
On the flip side though, if restaurants want to help, being flexible in their offerings, being willing to substitute grilled for fried or sauce on the side etc, will also go towards helping the fight. I don't think it will fix the problem but, selfishly, I like it.

Posted by: post GBP | October 7, 2008 12:06 PM | Report abuse

Most restaurants already do post nutritional data. I think the key part of the Schwartzenegger bill is the requirement to post the information PROMINENTLY, ie, not on a poster in tiny print somewhere back by the restrooms. Most people ignore the information that most chain restaurants provide because it's usually as carefully hidden as it can be without making it actually invisible to the consumer.

I think it has some merit in that it puts the information front and center where it can't be ignored. It may not change things much -- I doubt I'll eat less at McDonalds because they finally come clean about just how awful a Big Mac is for me -- but it will make me think about it a bit first.

Posted by: David | October 7, 2008 12:19 PM | Report abuse

Another thought: one thing I've seen recently at a couple local places is posting the Weight Watchers point count on the menu. I wonder if Weight Watchers would consider donating use of their point system to the public good as a rating system compromise vs posting the full nutritional hoo-hah on the menu? That would give a comparison value that would be independently rated (rather than values produced by labs hired or owned by the restaurant), and give a general comparison between restaurants. As someone mentioned, there's lots of ways to fix ribs, some healithier than others.

Posted by: David | October 7, 2008 12:30 PM | Report abuse

Yes, most people know that chicken breast is healthier than spare ribs, but do most people know how much fat "blackening" adds to a chicken breast or filet of fish? Or how much fat is added to "grill" shrimp?

And it's not just fat and calories that matter to some people. Sodium content should be listed also. I just recently found out how much sodium can hide in whole grain pancakes (over 1000 mg in a serving). If I had know that I would not have ordered them.

Posted by: Laura | October 7, 2008 12:45 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for your excellent, thought-provoking comments! Faye, I'll check into the printer-friendliness....

Posted by: Jennifer Huget | October 7, 2008 1:50 PM | Report abuse

I recently read (I think in this paper) where your "healthy" steamed veggies are doused in butter for presentation. It would be nice to have this kind of disclosure.

Posted by: librarylady | October 7, 2008 4:14 PM | Report abuse

Absolutely. For someone like me who counts calories and fat grams, absolutely.

Posted by: roya | October 8, 2008 11:55 AM | Report abuse

>Those of us who eat at chain restaurants >>and we probably all do once in a while) have a pretty good idea that a plate of spare ribs dripping in barbecue sauce is likely to have more calories and fat than, say, a plate of grilled chicken prepared >at home, where you can decide what you >add.

Not so. YOU, Jennifer Huget, are undoubtedly an educated person if you are writing for a national newspaper. My economic standing has recently become decidedly lower and because of where I now live and the people around me I have come to understand that there is a large segment of our population that is struggling so hard to stay afloat that they have neither the time nor the inclination to read about much, especially nutrition, and have no clear idea about the ridiculous amount of calories, fats and sugars in fast food. Further, even if they were aware of how to "eat well" they usually cannot afford to do so. Unfortuantely I cannot cook where I am now living as is the case for many of my neighbors. I find it is cheaper for me to eat 2-for-$3 burgers than to buy the ingredients to make a dinner-sized salad. IF one could see that she would consume 1100 calories by selecting a particular burger meal she might just choose something else or at least endeavor not to eat that same meal more than once a day or every couple of days.

Posted by: Kima Bee | October 8, 2008 12:56 PM | Report abuse

I have produced those small print nutrition posters for a major national chain restaurant, and frankly, people do not take the time to read them. I have watched many people who walk by and not even notice these nutrition posters posted.

I have my doubts, but I am hopeful, that people will use this information when it is on a menu or menu board next to the price to make more informed choices. Those are tuned in to it will like it there, others who don't care, won't pay attention. Those that don't care probably should start caring if they care about their health!

Posted by: Julie | October 8, 2008 2:05 PM | Report abuse

Yes, please! I hope this initiative is followed in the rest of the country too. I am a conscientious and healthy eater, and often find myself lacking complete information when eating out. I would like to know the exact nutritional content of my food, as well as the serving size. Many restaurants have started to 'mask' their otherwise unhealthy dishes with all sorts of 'healthy-sounding' buzz words. Please let me make informed choices about the food that I eat.

Posted by: Sumeet K. Atul | October 9, 2008 11:46 AM | Report abuse

I think dealing with obesity isn't going to come from just one change, but many. Posting calorie and nutrition facts for items on a menu is a part, and a good one, of helping people become aware of the quality and content of their meal. Everyone is free to eat what they want to, but information here can be helpful.

Posted by: Egg | October 11, 2008 8:33 PM | Report abuse

I think many people do not realize the huge disparity beetween the number of calories in what they might prepare at home and what they will eat in a restaurant. Learning the nutrition info certainly changes what I order. I remember being shocked the first time I looked at the calorie info of a Starbucks egg salad sandwich - it was over 700 calories . . . I never ate one again.

Posted by: gal522 | October 12, 2008 11:56 AM | Report abuse

It's not so easy to identify the lowest calorie choices in restaurants. Try our restaurant quiz and see how you do:

Posted by: Margo Wootan, CSPI | October 14, 2008 10:22 PM | Report abuse

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