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BOOSTER SHOTS: Oddities, musings and news from the
health world

Michelle Obama endorses Olive Garden, Red Lobster menu changes

September 15, 2011|By Jeannine Stein, Los Angeles Times / For the Booster Shots blog
  • First Lady Michelle Obama greets diners after a press conference announcing healthful changes in Darden Restaurants' menus.
First Lady Michelle Obama greets diners after a press conference announcing… (Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated…)

First Lady Michelle Obama gave her support Thursday to healthful menu changes at Darden Restaurants, the parent company of mega-chains such as Olive Garden and Red Lobster. The company announced Thursday  it's cutting calories and sodium in all of its restaurants, offering more healthful choices on its kids' menus and revamping other food choices.

Obama spoke at a news conference held at an Olive Garden restaurant in Hyattsville, Md., in which Darden Chairman and Chief Executive Clarence Otis outlined changes the company's restaurants will make.

"I'm here today because this is a big deal," Obama said. "I'm here because this is a breakthrough moment in the restaurant industry. I believe the changes Darden will make will impact the health and well-being of an entire generation of young people."

Obama launched the Let's Move! campaign to fight childhood obesity, and has challenged restaurants to offer more healthful menu items. So far, establishments such as McDonald's, IHOP and Burger King have jumped on board, pledging to include better options such as fruit.

In July, McDonald's said it would alter its Happy Meals, cutting back on French fries and adding apples. The company also plans to reduce calories, saturated fats, added sugar and sodium on its menu. Other restaurant chains, such as Romano's Macaroni Grill and the Cheesecake Factory, have also added more healthful items to their menus. Who said peer pressure was a bad thing?

Darden's plans include reducing overall calories and sodium by 10% over the next five years, and by 20% over the next 10 years. In addition, it will look at reformulating, resizing and removing specific menu items and add what it calls in a news release "calorie-conscious, flavorful choices."

Children's menus will have fruits or vegetables as default side dishes, and an 8-ounce glass of 1% milk is currently the default beverage, with free refills. Parents are free to substitute other items, however. In the release the company said it would create specific nutrition standards for developing children's meals.

Darden's restaurants also include LongHorn Steakhouse, the Capital Grille, Bahama Breeze and Seasons 52.

Obama said she sympathized with the "crazy, busy" schedules of parents as well as their desire for better options for themselves and their kids when they eat out, saying it wasn't long ago she and her family faced the same struggles. "Often parents assume that when a restaurant offers a separate kids' menu the food will actually be good for the kids, and they assume the portion sizes will be reasonable and the food will be just as nutritious as the food they prepare at home. Often that's not the case." Some restaurants meals, she said, can have as much as 1,000 calories, approaching a total day's normal allotment for a child.

The first lady added that the effort to eat more healthfully is a two-way street--to continue having these options restaurant patrons will have to order the stuff. "We have to literally put our money where our mouths are," she said. "We have to give them the incentive to do the right thing by stepping up and making those choices."

While we applaud Darden's decision to feature food lower in calories and sodium, we have to wonder why it's going to take so long. Yes, corporations often make changes at a snail's pace, but a five-year plan to reduce sodium and calories by 10% and a 10-year plan to take it down 20% seems like an inordinate amount of time. We recently worked with Los Angeles chefs to see if they could reduce the calories, fat and sodium in some of their dishes, and the task was accomplished in a matter of hours.

But every little bit helps, as Obama noted. She challenged mom-and-pop establishments to make more healthful changes as well, saying, "There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Even offering kids 100% fruit juice or milk or water rather than sweetened drinks are the kinds of small changes that can really add up."

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