First fast-food chain to post calories on menus; dietitians say it likely won't ease obesity
By Jessica Ferguson email@example.com
Sept. 18, 2012 at 10 p.m.
Will knowing that a sausage biscuit with egg has 510 calories, or that a Quarter Pounder with cheese has 520 calories, help curb obesity?
Not likely, dieticians said as McDonald's, the world's largest fast-food chain, began posting calorie counts next to the names and prices of items on its menu. But, they said, it's a step in the right direction.
"I think that most people want to make healthy decisions, so the more information the better," said Wendy Wallace, a Longview dietician.
McDonald's this week started posting the information on menus at its restaurants in Longview and elsewhere. The move comes ahead of a federal regulation that could require major chains to post the information as early as next year.
"We want to voluntarily do this," said Jan Fields, president of McDonald's USA. "We believe it will help educate customers."
In cities such as New York and Philadelphia where posting calorie information is already required, however, Fields said the information has not changed what customers choose to order.
And East Texans said it's unlikely to do so here.
"I'm one of those people who get what they want to eat," said Jacqueline Gardner of Longview. "You can put what you want up there, but I'm going to eat what I want."
The decision to post calorie information comes after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision this summer to uphold President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, which includes a regulation requiring restaurant chains with more than 20 locations to post calorie information. The timetable for carrying out that requirement is being worked out.
Though making such information simpler to find isn't a magic bullet in fighting obesity, it could have a positive effect over time, said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which advocates on nutrition and food safety issues.
"Obesity isn't the kind of thing where one day you wake up and you're fat. We gradually and slowly gain weight over time," she said.
So even if only some people are swayed to make slightly better choices, Wootan said, there's a big benefit to providing calorie information.
Another upside is that companies tend to work harder to provide healthier options when they're forced to display calorie information.
"It can be embarrassing, or shocking, so they end up changing the way the product is made," Wootan said.
Kit McKinney, dietician with the Greater East Texas Diabetes Association, agreed that posting calorie content is a good idea but was not likely to have a big effect in East Texas, where obesity is more common than elsewhere across Texas and the nation.
The dieticians agreed that in order for consumers to make better food choices, not only do they need more information than calorie counts, they also need to understand how to properly use the information.
"Calorie levels still don't show complete nutrition," Wallace said. "Just because an item has a low level of calories doesn't mean it is healthy."
The dietician compared an apple and a serving of fries to show that the two may have the same amount of calories, but because of their chemical composition, the body would metabolize them differently.
"Calories are just one piece," Wallace said. "People need to know the nutritional make-up and the ingredients. ... Just addressing food intake in and of itself I don't think is going to help much."
McKinney echoed that, saying emphasis on calories alone is unlikely to change diners' habits. That will take more knowledge of nutritional basics.
"People try to make nutrition more complicated than it is," she said. "The basic things to do are eat fruits and vegetables every day, drink plenty of water and get plenty of exercise."
Although people would probably be surprised to find out how many calories they are consuming in a single fast-food meal, McKinney said she doesn't believe that knowledge would deter them from satisfying their fast-food cravings.
"The information has been there all along, it's just easier to find," she said of the changes at McDonald's, which will soon be followed by other chains. "We did this back in the '80s and '90s where all restaurants gave out nutrition information, and it didn't make a difference."
Even with this step in the fast food industry, the choice still belongs to the consumer.
"The (food) decisions made will depend on the person and how they value their health," Wallace said.
Wallace offered a few tips for people to find ways to eat a nutritious meal while eating out. Many fast-food diners think eating a salad is the best way to go, but "adding breaded, fried chicken and dressing can add a lot of calories to a salad," she said. "Once you add those, it can be the equivalent of a hamburger."
For a customer who chooses to order a hamburger, she recommended ordering a smaller size with a side salad with little or no dressing. If not a salad, maybe a fruit cup would be a better choice.
"I also wouldn't make that the largest meal for the day," Wallace said.
And don't forget that drinks can also pack on the calories.
"If something is high in high-fructose corn syrup, it will trigger your body to store more fat," she said.
Instead of choosing a fountain drink, Wallace recommended washing it down with water or un-sweetened tea.
The move by McDonald's could spur other restaurant chains to move ahead of the federal regulation.
The Wendy's Co. did not immediately respond to requests for comment last week. Representatives for Burger King Worldwide Inc. and Yum Brands Inc, which owns Taco Bell and KFC, said they were waiting for further guidance from regulators before updating their menus.
In the meantime, McDonald's also is testing healthier options for next year, such as an Egg White Delight, made with egg whites and a whole grain muffin. The sandwich has Canadian bacon and white cheddar cheese and clocks in at 260 calories.
<em>- The Associated Press contributed to this report.</em>