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Is disclosure of the nutritional value of our meals making us healthier?

Tracy Woolrich's picture
Nutritional value of our meals

During the past 2 decades there has been a slow but steady increase in obesity in the U.S. In response to this trend, the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act required that food chains with at least 20 locations to list nutritional content on their menus. But is this helping us makes better choices?

According to the CDC, nearly 36% of US adults and 17% of children are obese. Yet only 33% of consumers read posted calorie counts in restaurants. That is discouraging. There is some good news however.The ones that do read the information tend to make food choices according to the nutritional content.

I have to admit it. I am a coffee addict. My guilty pleasure is a White Chocolate Mocha from Starbucks. That was until I discovered my one drink alone had 400 calories. I still have one now and then but not weekly like I used to. Also, I will ask for skim milk, less chocolate flavoring shots and will hold the whip cream to save even more calories. For me the nutritional content information was helpful and allowed me to make better choices.

A study published in the Journal of Public Health from the CDC in 2009 looked at health knowledge and behaviors. The researchers analyzed responses from more than 4,000 participants regarding whether they read the nutritional content information in restaurants and if it influenced their choices.
Ten percent reported eating out three or more times a week. Fifty percent indicated that they did so less than once a week. Across the board over one third of the people who indicated that they were aware of the posted nutritional content information actually read it. Those that did read it, 95 percent indicated that they used that information at least some of the time.

Women were more likely to view the nutritional content then men. In addition, individuals who ate out three of more times a month were less likely to bother at all.

What would create a healthier dining experience? Ultimately the desired outcome would be two fold. One would be for restaurants to provide an abundance of healthier options. The other would be for individuals to make choices based on posted nutritional information. These two things alone could become a win-win proposition for both restaurants and the patrons who visit them. It would allow for healthier options for the individual and at the same time increase confidence in the public that may feel comfortable eating out more often.

Healthier choices
If you are one of the many who eat out yet still want make healthier choices there are several things you can do.

First of all prepare ahead of time. Do not depend on the restaurant to have all the nutritional information you need to make an informed decision. Get online and look for free downloadable guides that will help you choose wisely. Print it out and bring it with you.

Don’t be shy. Ask if a specific item on the menu can be prepared in a way that is healthier. Perhaps the fried fish dinner on the menu can be grilled or broiled. Ask for sauces and gravies to be on the side to give you more control. If you have to have mayo on your sandwich ask for it on the side and put it on yourself rather than risk that the individual preparing your sandwich doesn’t drown it in excess calories.

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Skip the soda or sweet tea and go with unsweetened coffee, tea or water. Use artificial sweeteners if you must. If you cannot stomach drinking plain water, ask for a piece of lemon or lime in it. You could also bring an additive such as the popular Mio drops to put in your water.

Did you know?
The average fast food meal can easily total your entire day’s worth of calories at one sitting. It is not unheard of for a meal to have more than 1500 calories. Make your choices with that in mind. Look at the calories, fat and sodium content in the selections and chose wisely.

Just because you can super size an item for 50 cents does not mean you should. Choose small side items. Ask for fruit or a salad instead of fries.

If you are eating at a sit down restaurant ask for a to-go container and bring home half. Most restaurants’ servings are enough for two meals.

The deadly buffet
There is little you can do when eating at a buffet. There is no telling how many calories are in any particular dish or how many ones are hidden. Do the best you can by choosing the obvious healthier items that are broiled and not fried.

Load up on the vegetables and go skimpy on the butter. Wait before going back for seconds until you allow the first helping to digest. It takes at least 20 minutes for the stomach to tell the brain you are full. Don’t feel you have to have seconds just to get your money’s worth either.

Take home message
Eating out can be quick and easy. Try to make the most of it by making healthy choices. Otherwise, if you eat out on a regular basis you are risking not only weight gain but a plethora of other health problems. As a well informed consumer, you can make healthier choices and still enjoy the convenience of eating out.

Here is a question for you. If the nutritional information was available to you would you read it, or would you prefer to pass it by for fear it would ruin your dining experience?

Journal of Public Health