Numbers to the rescue


The numbers game. It always said that numbers never lie, but people do. And there’s a saying that goes, “what you don’t know won’t hurt.” The American Beverage Association plans to take its “Calories Count” initiative nation-wide in 2013, requiring vending machines to post calorie counts. And under the health care bill, all restaurants with more than 20 locations will also have to post calorie information. The efforts are supposed to help curb obesity.

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 is 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.

Mother of two, Kim Hood, said obesity in Donaldsonville is a problem and she thinks posting the information on the vending machines would help.

“I don’t think a lot of people realize how much they’re putting into their bodies,” Hood said. “If they knew ahead of time, they might think twice before ordering something or getting something out of the vending machine.”

Hood has a son and daughter who are nine and three years old. She said she monitors their sugary drink intake mainly because she doesn’t want “hyper kids.”

Helena Marroy said she doesn’t really know if obesity is a problem here locally, but she said probably so because it’s everywhere, “So I’d probably say yes.”

Marroy, mother of two girls ages nine and five years old, said her girls don’t drink a whole lot of sodas and if they do, it’s Coke Zero.

“We drink mainly water and milk in our house because I don’t want to get fat,” she said and laughed. “I don’t want it to rot their teeth, dentists cost too much money.”

Marroy believes posting the information up-front on would help too because she said people would be more aware of what they drink “instead of just grabbing it.”

Tracie Poirrier said absolutely obesity is a problem. Poirrier, who is a mother of two 19 and 23-year-old said her kids were never “snackers” and have always eaten healthy.

“Their grandparents baby sat for them and they cooked home-cooked meals everyday and they got full,” Poirrier said. “So, we never had sweets in our house or anything, ever. Easter baskets, we’d have to go searching for stuff because they don’t like chocolates.”

Poirrier said she thinks posting the counts up-front will certainly help the older kids because they are more aware.

“For younger kids I definitely think it’s up to the parents, and up to the schools too,” Poirrier said. “The parents have to teach them to make healthy choices.”

However, Shelly Cedotal, who is a mother of two boys had a different view on posting calorie counts on the vending machines. 

“I don’t think so because it’s already on the cans and that doesn’t help,” Cedotal said.

Expanding awareness, waistlines

As Americans’ eating out habits has 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.

Jim White, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said calorie awareness is important for addressing overeating in America.

“I don’t think it is going to harm anything,” he said of posting calorie counts on menus. “I think some people are going to be alarmed at the calories in some common restaurant items. A common restaurant meal can be 800 to 1,000 calories. I recommend a lot women have a 400-calorie per meal plan. They are getting 75 percent of their calories for a normal day in one meal.”

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.

Teetering on the edge of health

Despite the calorie postings, some consumers will continue to opt for high-calorie, high-fat choices, with convenience and cost being large factors in those decisions, White said.

White noted many of the items on fast food dollar menus are the higher calorie foods, which may make it more difficult for consumers with fewer economic resources to make healthy choices.

“I think there are definitely certain people who will not opt for a healthy lifestyle, regardless,” he said, “but I think there is a certain population that is teetering and might choose a healthier lifestyle if they had the information. It is that middle population we are looking at.”

White said creating calories awareness at restaurants might lead to healthier eating at home.

“If you can eat healthy at a fast food restaurant, you can eat healthy anywhere,” White said. “If you can face great tasting things like cheeses and butter and tasty fried foods, you’ve dodged a bullet.”