Eat and Tell: Restaurant Menus Go Public

Americans are getting about one-third of their calories from outside the home, according to a new report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. We’re also eating out twice as often as we did in 1970, and restaurant foods are an important contributor to rising rates of overweight and obesity. Let’s face it  eating out is a part of our lifestyle, and according to recent polls, two-thirds of Americans support requiring chain restaurants to display calorie content on the menu boards and menus of their favorite eateries.

The Menu Education and Labeling (MEAL) bill, introduced to Congress last November, would require fast-food and other chain restaurants (with ten or more outlets) to list calorie counts of fast food menu boards, and would require table-service chains to list calories, saturated plus trans fat, carbohydrate and sodium on printed menus. This bill would apply only to standard menu items, and not changing items. Quite simply, a McDonald’s Big Mac has 590 calories no matter where you get it. Why not make it easy for people to find that out?

On a typical day, the National Restaurant Association estimates that more than four out of ten adults patronize restaurants, and when people eat out at restaurants, they don’t eat as well as at home. They consume more calories and saturated fat, fewer nutrients, like calcium, and less fiber. Children eat almost twice as many calories in an average restaurant meal than in a home-cooked meal (770 versus 420 calories). Nutrition labeling would provide clearer information and an important tool to allow people to make informed choices for this significant, and growing, part of their diet.

Some menu items have more calories and fat than anyone would guess. A single slice of carrot cake from The Cheesecake Factory chain has 1,560 calories and 23 grams of fat  more than a day’s worth- of artery-clogging saturated fat, according to the report. Extra value meals most often mean extra calories and fat, like the Quarter Pounder with Cheese Extra Value Meal. It would take an average-sized woman 2 hours of running to burn off the 1,550 calories it contains, or 50 minutes to burn off the 250 calories in a 20 oz. Coke.

The high levels of obesity in the U.S. are attributable to both unhealthy eating and physical inactivity, and both most be addressed to help reduce obesity, heart disease, cancer and other diseases. Three-fourths of adults report using food labels, and people who read these labels are more likely to have a diet lower in fat and cholesterol and higher in vitamin C. The U.S. Surgeon General and Department of Health and Human Services’ “Call to Action” on obesity recommends “increasing availability of nutrition information for foods eaten and prepared away from home.” Under the current system of voluntary labeling, about two-thirds of the largest chain restaurants do not provide any nutrition information. Restaurant foods, according to CSPI, are an important contributor to rising rates of obesity and overweight. Going public with the information would allow us to eat and know, not just eat and guess!

Leave a Reply