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Macon Chronicle-Herald - Macon, MO
  • Sticker Shock

  • More restaurants, vending machines to display calorie counts – but will it change our eating habits?
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  • A Big Mac, a large Coke and large fries has 1,360 calories — more than three times the recommended 400 calories per meal.
    Public health officials hope seeing calorie counts like these on restaurant menus and vending machines will lead consumers to make healthier food choices and help reduce obesity in America. But as Americans increasingly opt for meals outside the home, the battle's quickly becoming uphill.
    'Healthy' options
    The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 requires restaurants with 20 or more locations to post calorie counts on menus. According to the Food and Drug Administration, 280,000 of the United State's 600,000 restaurants will be subject to the new regulations.
    In September, McDonald's was one of the first large fast food chains to roll out the new menus.
    Starting in 2013, the American Beverage Association is launching its Calories Count program with Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, where calorie information will be posted on vending machines. The program is first rolling out in a few cities, then going nation-wide.
    Whether the up-front information will lead to healthier choices is still up for debate.
    "Our girls are very healthy, and active," said Sherie McCracken Bork, a mother of two girls at Macon R-1 High School. "My girls are 15 and 17 years old, and participate in after-school activities. The smaller lunches do not fill them up, let alone keep them going until they could get home. When they were younger we would watch what they ate, but I believe they are old enough to know what is or isn't good for them," Bork said.
    Another mother, Jennifer Taylor Rider, said in a Facebook reply that she views nutrition and food as the body's fuel and strives to "put in the best possible foods to operate [at] your highest potential."
    She also limits her children's intake of soda and sugar.
    "Obesity among our youth is growing at an extreme rate," she said.
    But it's not just Rider who is reducing intake of certain items. Macon R-1 schools have reduced the amount of salt their students can consume and are also trying to provide lower calorie meals by reducing serving sizes.
    One Macon-area parent believes the smaller lunches could lead to overeating later in the day.
    "My kids are starving when they come home," Kristin Enyard, mother of two high school boys and one elementary school student said. "It seems like they are eating more at home. I believe it should be up to the parents to regulate their children's meals."
    Although this is an issue, it's not just youth that are seeing the bulge.
    The percentage of calories Americans consume away from home has almost doubled since the late 1970s, according to the USDA Economic Research Service — and it's affecting our health and waist lines.
    Page 2 of 3 - A study from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute published in 2004 indicated young adults who eat frequently at fast food restaurants gain more weight and have a greater increase in insulin resistance in early middle age.
    Insulin resistance is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes, and diabetes is a major risk factor for heart disease.
    Expanding awareness, waistlines
    As Americans' eating-out habits have increased, so has the nation's obesity rate.
    The percentage of children in the United States who were obese increased from 7 percent in 1980 to almost 20 percent in 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Adolescents saw a similar increase.
    More than one-third of U.S. adults are obese, resulting in about $147 billion in health care costs in 2008, according to the CDC.
    Jim White, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said calorie awareness is important for addressing overeating in America.
    "I don't think it is going to harm anything," he said of posting calorie counts on menus. "I think some people are going to be alarmed at the calories in some common restaurant items. A common restaurant meal can be 800 to 1,000 calories. I recommend a lot women have a 400-calorie-per-meal plan. They are getting 75 percent of their calories for a normal day in one meal."
    Whether or not the calorie shock will truly dissuade consumers from ordering high-calorie, high-fat foods remains to be seen.
    Two major university studies have shown conflicting results of posting calories counts on menus.
    A Stanford study of Starbucks consumers showed a 6 percent decrease in calorie consumption when food calorie counts were posted on menus.
    New York University researchers found about 28 percent of New York City customers indicated calorie labeling influenced their choices.
    However, the participants' receipts showed they purchased about the same amount of calories before the labeling went into effect.
    Teetering on the edge of health
    Despite the calorie postings, some consumers will continue to opt for high-calorie, high-fat choices, with convenience and cost being large factors in those decisions, White said.
    White noted many of the items on fast food dollar menus are the higher calorie foods, which may make it more difficult for consumers with fewer economic resources to make healthy choices.
    "I think there are definitely certain people who will not opt for a healthy lifestyle, regardless," he said, "but I think there is a certain population that is teetering and might choose a healthier lifestyle if they had the information. It is that middle population we are looking at."
    White said creating calories awareness at restaurants may lead to healthier eating at home.
    Page 3 of 3 - "If you can eat healthy at a fast food restaurant, you can eat healthy anywhere," White said. "If you can face great-tasting things like cheeses and butter and tasty fried foods, you've dodged a bullet."
    — Taylor Muller contributed to this report.

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