New York City’s decision to require fast food restaurants to post calorie information about their food on the menu was touted as a major public health victory at the time. Such information is available online, but it is not easy to get to, often posted on corporate websites in large pdf files that take a while to download.
It was hoped that the listing of calories next to menu items, while a person was actually ordering a menu, might somehow guilt them into buying the small fries instead of the regular fries. Or if not guilt customers, than at least get them to think about the calories in their foods, and to allow them to make an informed decision.
Certainly, this move has given people the ability to see upfront how many calories are in that Big Mac or Whopper. However, even calories don’t paint a clear picture about the dubious nutritional value of fast food meals which are often loaded with salt and cholesterol, contributing to the hypertension epidemic and cardiovascular disease.
A study published in the journal Health Affairs has concluded that the changes did not change consumption of fast food. However, perhaps McDonald’s customers did notice the calorie counts, ate the same meal at McDonald’s, but then skipped the bag of potato chips at home. Or perhaps American consumers just never were that calorie conscious to begin with. After all, if you eat at McDonald’s with any frequency, chances are you might not be watching your daily calorie count, or even have an idea about how many grams of sodium or cholesterol is too much in a given day.
Many people know that McDonald’s and other fast food is “bad” for them, but they might not understand the importance of maintaining a health weight to avoid diseases such as heart disease, stroke and a variety of cancers that are associated with obesity and hypertension.
The study looked at poor, and often heavily minority, neighborhoods in New York. Ironically, the poor are often very likely to become obese by eating foods high in fat and sugar, which often cost less than fresh fruits and vegetables. Ironic because centuries ago only the wealthy could enjoy foods such as meat, butter and other fatty items, and the poor more often than not subsisted on a diet high in vegetables.
In a way Americans have become victims of our own efficiency. The vast majority of fast food restaurants were invented in the United States, which managed to both change dinner time, as well as provide relatively cheap food in amounts only limited by how much somebody was willing to pay.
McDonald’s recently was offering a double cheeseburger on its dollar menu, which was ironically cheaper than a regular cheeseburger. That’s right, you have to pay more to get less food. Of course, you could always buy a double cheeseburger and throw away the extra patty to save money.
The problem may be more one of choice than one of supplying nutritional information. Inevitably some people will be too busy to count their calories, and may choose to live a shorter life eating fast food than eating food they have to prepare and travel to buy. Much has been written about the lack of fresh food in inner cities. However, from personal experience most corner deli’s and supermarkets in New York offer a variety of fruits. However, the snack aisles with multiple packaged cookies and candies are often just as large.
The City of New York will be conducting their own study on the effect of calorie counts on menus, and it is possible that the law which places calorie counts on menus hasn’t been in effect long enough. Hopefully after years of the information being available, frequent flyers at fast food restaurants will begin to wonder what their daily calorie intake should be, and if they are over their mark. While most fast food is high in calories and cholesterol, it can be part of a healthy diet, when eaten in moderation. If you eat fruit and vegetable for dinner, and oatmeal for breakfast, then perhaps a meal at McDonald’s isn’t that bad. More important is a person’s pattern of eating over an extended amount of time.
However, many patrons of fast food restaurants may be eating equally unhealthy food at home. In part, your diet is determined in large part by geography and traditions. Eaters of the Mediterranean diet, thought to one of the healthiest diets in the world, eat a steady diet low in red meats and higher in fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and nuts than most American diets. The various boroughs of New York are filled with fast food joints, pizzerias, spanish and mexican food eateries, deli’s and a variety of other restaurants that often offer high calorie food at a cheap price. Is it any wonder that New Yorkers continue eating the same food they have always eaten?
Indeed, restaurants like McDonald’s have built up themselves as being an American tradition. Commercials featuring families eating at McDonald’s, celebrating birthdays there, and having “your break” at McDonald’s have cemented this fast food restaurant in the American psyche as a wholesome place, even if the food is not. So, while calorie counts on menus will educate many Americans, it is difficult to overcome the decades of American tradition, which unfortunately include fast food.
So how can the public become accustomed to eating healthier food, and eating less of it at the same time? It will take years probably to introduce a new American tradition, that of calorie counting and eating more fruits and vegetables. But how could such a transformation take place? Education is a great place to start, beginning with school age children who perhaps could keep calorie diaries or participate in yearly school activities where they study the nutritious content of food. After all, it won’t help if people have detailed nutritional information but they don’t know how to use it.
A serious effort must also be made by doctors to educate their patients about eating healthier, as well as encouraging their patients when they make changes in their diet. However, most doctors focus less on preventive health care these days than ever before. Mostly due to reimbursement issues which don’t reward a doctor’s time couseling a paitent, but also do a shift in the medical culture where treatment of acute disease is prioritized over less urgent matters.
As America’s obesity epidemic continues to worsen, and as the effects of the obesity epidemic in children begin to be realized and researched, there will likely be more emphasis on public health programs which can help people to lose weight and make healthier food choices. While posting calories next to menu items may initially make only a small dent in the obesity epidemic, it is a good start.
Calorie Labeling Doesn’t Curb NYC Fast Food Habits