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Fighting Obesity With Calorie Counts and Community Efforts

Fighting Obesity With Calorie Counts and Community Efforts

By Kevin Sterne

A federal regulation that would have given consumers a better idea of their calorie consumption at chain eateries has been delayed — again — by the Food and Drug Administration under pressure from restaurant trade groups. The rule, which had been set to go into effect this week, would have required restaurants with 20 or more locations to display calorie counts on menus and menu boards.

The rule — a part of the Affordable Care Act that has been long delayed by lobbyists and special interests since 2012 — is now pushed off again until May 7, 2018.

“The push to list calorie counts is being driven by concern for the health of Americans and their eating behaviors and patterns whether at home or at a restaurant,” says Nancy Z. Farrell, MS, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Clearly, the public would be better served by having this nutrition information at hand. The issue seems to be how can that best be accomplished in light of the realities of the marketplace?”

Obesity is a growing concern in the Chicago area, where 34.2 percent of adults are overweight and 27 percent obese, according to a 2010 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey.

Curbing Chicago’s obesity epidemic starts with education, something the calorie requirement would provide, Farrell says. “It would be a first step in educating consumers so they can take ownership and make the best possible selection for them and their needs.”

Listing calories would enable consumers to compare the nutritional value between one food item and another instead of blindly guessing. For example, they may notice the tomato mozzarella panini they would usually order has the same number of calories as, say, the Greek salad — a sort of real-life roleplay of Eat This, Not That!

In her work as a registered dietitian nutritionist, Farrell has seen firsthand how consumer education can elicit changes in eating behavior. “I had a patient recently who has done remarkably well in her weight loss efforts the past two months,” Farrell says. “She was out and in a hurry and thought about stopping at a well-known fast food restaurant. Using her smartphone, she stopped and accessed the nutrition information of the food item that she thought she might purchase. Once reviewing it, she adjusted her plans.”

What Farrell describes is the ideal scenario: a person making a healthy, mindful decision about what they eat based on nutritional education and available information. The premise is simple, but the execution is not always easy, especially for those living in areas lacking food options and readily available information.

African-American communities in Chicago have significantly less access to grocery stores and roughly equal access to fast food restaurants compared with Chicago’s white neighborhoods, according to a 2006 Gallagher Group study. This means that it is much easier to access fast food than other types of food.

Labeling, along with other nutrition education efforts, can make a big difference in communities across Chicago.

“All it takes is one community member to make a difference,” Farrell says, “I worked in a community group where healthcare providers, school administration, fast food restaurant owners, fitness club administration staff, parents and social services board members joined hands to work on comprehensive community initiatives to decrease childhood obesity.”

This is exactly what Melissa Graham, founding executive director of Purple Asparagus, seeks to do with her organization. “I’m a very strong advocate for giving people as much information as they want. I think that calorie count is particularly important,” she says.

Most consumers underestimate the number of calories in the foods they purchase in restaurants, according to a study published in the BMJ journal. And the higher the calorie content, the more people tend to underestimate.

But positive decision-making doesn’t have to come through nutritional labels alone. In its programs for children, Purple Asparagus focuses on positive decision-making and the joy of eating healthy.

“Our approach is simple. If you eat a lot of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains, then you’re well on your way to healthy eating,” Graham says.

The FDA says it will reopen the public comment period “to make the Menu Labeling Rule more flexible and less burdensome while still providing useful information to consumers.” Farrell says that she encourages the public to provide input and suggestions.

While providing calorie counts would be a step in the right direction for better nutrition, Farrell and Graham say that impact begins at the community level — when community members join together, have conversations and create partnerships to drive change.

When it comes to positive eating habits, change comes in small bites, but the impact could last a lifetime.

Originally published May 2, 2017

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