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Shining light on fast food calories

August 18, 2008|Karen Ravn | Special to The Times

No one's looking to make you go on a diet. But there's a law in the works in Sacramento that might -- just might -- help you lose weight -- or so says a study released Thursday.

The proposed law, SB 1420, which the state Senate has passed and the Assembly will consider soon, would require chain restaurants with 15 or more outlets in California to list the calorie content for each item on their menus and menu boards. (The menus would also include other nutritional information, such as grams of fat and carbohydrates.)

Advocates believe such a "menu-labeling law" could help to halt, or at least slow, the trend that has led to 3 out of 5 Californians being overweight or obese. The new study -- by the Dr. Robert C. and Veronica Atkins Center for Weight and Health at UC Berkeley -- is the latest evidence suggesting they may be right.

By the researchers' calculations, if the law were in effect, adult fast-food customers might, on average, end up weighing nearly 3 pounds less after a year, thanks to having eaten 9,300 fewer calories.

Even if only 80% of the customers see the calorie information, "That adds up to 40 million pounds in the state of California," says Dr. Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy in Davis, which published the study on its website.

Other health experts are less sure what the law would do to Californians' waistlines. On the one hand, they say, a hefty number of studies augur well for the law's success: studies that show just how much fast food people eat, and studies that show how badly people -- even nutrition mavens -- underestimate calorie content when left to do the math themselves.

"People are notoriously inaccurate," says Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University in New Haven.

Still, there's no definitive proof that the law will make people cut calories -- the kind of proof that could only come from a controlled study of what happens after a law of this sort goes into effect.

"The law is a reasonable thing to try," says James O. Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado. "You could argue that this is just what people are needing, that when they have this information, they'll make all the right choices. Or you could argue that people already know they're doing the wrong things, but they do them anyway."

Where's the data saying it might work? Anecdotal evidence gleaned from New York City, where a similar law has been in effect for about a month, is pretty dramatic, says Amanda Bloom, policy director at the California Center for Public Health Advocacy. "Diners are shocked at what they're seeing. And restaurants say they're selling out of their lowest calorie choices when they never were before."

Last year, before that law was in force, researchers analyzed the purchasing patterns of more than 7,000 customers at 11 fast-food chains in New York City for a study appearing this month in the American Journal of Public Health.

Then, only one of the 11 chains offered calorie-content information in a way that customers could easily see and use it. That was Subway, which provided the information on the splash guard between customers and the ingredients that go into their sandwiches -- so they could refer to it when they placed their orders.

(Calorie information at other chains was provided in less in-your-face locations such as in brochures or on websites.)

When surveyed, 32% of Subway's customers said they saw calorie information, and of those, 37% said the information affected their orders.

That means about 12% of all Subway customers said the information affected their orders.

Researchers compared the average calorie content in meals ordered by Subway customers who said they saw calorie information with customers who didn't, and found that those who said they saw the information ordered meals consisting of 714 calories, on average, versus 766 for those who said they didn't see it -- 52 fewer calories, or about a 7% reduction.

Then the researchers looked closer at the juicy details, finding that customers who saw calorie information and said it affected them ordered meals containing 647 calories, versus 746 for customers who saw the information and said it didn't affect them; in other words, they bought meals with 99 fewer calories, on average -- a 13% reduction.

Statistically speaking, the difference between those who saw information but ignored it and those who didn't see it at all is too small to count. Essentially, those who said it didn't affect them ordered like customers who didn't see the information.

Researchers conducting the just-released California study used the New York City results to project how many calories citizens here might avoid eating annually if the menu-labeling law gets passed.

To do that, they needed to know how often people eat at fast-food restaurants.

Lots of customers

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