Nutrition Info Not Deterring Kids from Making High Calorie Choices

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Mandating calorie counts on restaurant menus is part of a nationwide effort to reduce the rates of obesity in the United States. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that two-thirds of American adults and 15 percent of children are overweight or obese. So far, knowledge of nutrition information has not deterred some kids from making the best choices.

Taste and Convenience are More Important to Teens than Calories

Chain restaurants with 20 or more outlets must provide information about calorie levels on menu items and how it compares to the average daily recommendations for healthy persons as part of the new healthcare reform law.

New York City had already adopted such a measure in July of 2008, so researchers from New York University gathered restaurant receipts and surveyed 427 parents and teenagers at fast food restaurants before and after the mandatory labeling began. The team focused on the four largest chains in New York, including McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, and KFC. They compared the information to food purchased at restaurants in nearby Newark (NJ) which did not have mandatory labeling prior to 2011.

Read: Health Law Will Demand Calorie Menus Nationwide

About 90% of the customers were ethnic or racial minorities. About 35% of the teens said they ate fast food six or more times a week.

Overall, the researchers found that 57% of children and adolescents noticed the calorie counts, but the information made little difference in what they chose to order. Only 9% reported that nutritional information influenced their food choices. Taste was the most important factor for menu selections.

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The foods that the teens purchased averaged about 730 calories per order before menu labeling appeared and around 755 calories per meal after. The recommendation for the average teenage boy needs about 2500-3000 calories per day; the average teen girl needs about 2200.

Read: Experts Anticipate Focus on Small Lifestyle Changes to Fight Obesity

Parents choosing foods for their kids purchased about 600 calories per meal on average before the calorie counts, but this did drop to about 595 after, although this is not enough of a reduction to be statistically significant.

Dr. Brian Elbel, assistant professor of medicine and health policy at NYU, said that the study was not big enough to predict the effectiveness of food labeling, but admits that it does indicate that “we’re going to have to rethink what other sorts of interventions” might be needed.

"It's important to understand that labeling is not likely to be enough to influence obesity in a large-scale way," he added.

Dr. Pooja Tandon of the University of Washington, not involved in the NYU study but who has conducted a similar type of study, believes that it may just take repeated exposure before behavior change is seen, or a longer time for restaurants to reformulate their offerings.

The study findings are published online Feb. 15 in the International Journal of Obesity.

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