The Scoop on Food

Will Calorie Counts on Menus Help Kids Eat Better?

Will Calorie Counts on Menus Help Kids Eat Better? 37790
To help kids and their families make more informed choices when eating out, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has just finalized two rules for restaurant-type foods (foods usually eaten on the premises, while walking away, or soon after arriving at another location) and foods purchased from vending machines.

According to the new rules, chain restaurants, and similar retail food establishments such as pizza places, salad bars in grocery stores and delis, ice cream shops and movie theaters with 20 or more locations—are now required to post calorie information on menus and menu boards. Operators who own or operate 20 or more vending machines also are required to share calorie information with consumers.

In an effort to reduce the incidence of obesity and improve nutritional intake—and offerings—to Americans, menu labeling was originally spearheaded by the consumer advocacy group, Center for Science in the Public Interest, in 2003. But it wasn't until 2008 that menu labeling was mandated for the first time in the U.S. in New York City. Supported by dozens of consumer and professional groups including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, several cities have since adopted similar measures. And in 2010, the national health care reform bill that included a menu labeling provision was passed. Although final menu labeling regulations were expected within a year, they weren't finalized until recently, at the end of 2014. (Better late than never, I guess!)

Chain restaurants and other retail establishments have one year, and vending machines have two years, to comply with the new federal rules that, incidentally, trump local laws. Although many chain restaurants have already implemented menu labeling laws, following the new rules will be costly for grocery stores and other establishments that before now weren't required by law to post calorie information.

It's unclear at this time how menu labeling will impact kids' overall calorie and nutrient intake. Still, it's important to pay attention to calories and other nutrients such as fat and sodium derived from foods purchased away from home since they make up a large part of the daily diet. In the press release announcing the new rules, FDA commissioner, Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. says, "Americans eat and drink about one-third of their calories away from home." The question is, will knowing how many calories are in different foods help consumers—including kids—purchase and subsequently consume fewer calories?

Although we need a lot more data before drawing conclusions about the effectiveness of menu labeling (the few studies on its impact on adults and teenagers have thus far yielded mixed results), a recent report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation concludes that "menu labeling will likely cause small, but meaningful, reductions in calories purchased at chain restaurants and cafeterias overall, and particularly for patrons who see and use the labels." It also suggests that the full impact of menu labeling won't be apparent until chains throughout the country comply with federal menu labeling regulations.

Many experts support the new rules requiring calorie information for fast food and other restaurants and food sold at movie theaters and other venues and in vending machines. Registered and licensed dietitian Joan Salge Blake, a Clinical Associate Professor at Boston University, says, "The new, and long overdue, labeling guidelines will allow families to better understand the amount of calories in their choices at restaurants, and then, balance those decisions among the other family meal options for the week."

Lisa Young, R.D., PhD., author of The Portion Teller Plan, says, "It's good that people will now know how many calories are in the foods they eat. They may even see some surprises that may help them make better choices." David Katz, M.D., Editor in Chief of the journal Childhood Obesity, agrees. He says, "I support the measures because more informed decisions are better than uninformed decisions." But he also says we have to be very careful not to conflate calories with nutritional quality. "Being cognizant of calories is important and potentially useful to both adults and children, but only if it is in the context of also thinking about the importance of food quality," Katz says.

Although I would never recommend that parents teach kids to obsess over or focus solely on calories in each and every item that passes their lips, it's important for parents to model healthier eating by making mindful choices themselves and offering small portions to their children when eating out. Having calorie counts available provides parents and kids with an opportunity to have a conversation about how a favorite fast food meal, slice of pizza, scoop of ice cream or muffin or cookie measures up compared to different foods or portion sizes of those foods. Choosing more healthful (or at least, less caloric) options in appropriate portions for young kids when dining out can be a first step. But as kids age, it's important to empower them so that when they're older, they can make their own healthful choices when eating away from home (e.g. at school, or at a friend's house). Also, showing kids how the foods they eat fit into their total daily calorie and nutrient needs can really be eye opening. Modeling healthier eating habits and showing kids how they can fit in treats (e.g. high calorie, nutrient poor foods like French fries and cookies) as occasional indulgences rather than staple items can also be a valuable lesson.

Although higher calorie foods like nuts can pack in nutrients, many of the items kids grab when they're on the go are often loaded not only with calories but with added sugar, fat, and sodium—things that should be limited in kids' diets. Showing kids how the choices they make and the portions they choose when they're eating out fit into the rest of the day can be a good lesson, especially when kids need to try to make room for many of the nutritious foods they tend to skimp on like fruits and vegetables and whole grains.

According to the new rules, the statement, "2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice, but calorie needs vary" will appear on menus and menu boards to show consumers how the calories in different foods fit into their daily needs and in the context of their entire diet. Although some older kids calorie needs may be on par with that of some adults, younger kids typically require less. According to the new rules, the following may also be used on menus and menu boards targeted to children:

"1,200 to 1,400 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice for children ages 4 to 8 years, but calorie needs vary."

Or

"1,200 to 1,400 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice for children ages 4 to 8 years and 1,400 to 2,000 calories a day for children 9 to 13 years, but calorie needs vary."

I hope that menu labeling will be an empowering wake-up call to kids and parents alike about what's really in their food. With obesity and diet-related diseases at high levels, it's critical that we find solutions to help create a more healthful environment that supports making better food choices. This one federal effort may not be THE solution, but it can certainly be part of the solution, especially if it leads restaurants and any venues that serve food to offer smaller portions and/or more nutrient-rich foods. Hopefully, future studies will show that menu labeling can make a dent in our collective calorie intake to help all of us maintain healthy body weights and avert diet-related health problems down the road.

To learn more about the new calorie labeling rules, check out the FDA website.

Also, check my previous Scoop on Food blogs: How Kids Can Eat Better When They Eat Out and New Nutrition Guidance for 2 to 11-Year-Olds.

Do you think providing calorie counts will help kids eat better?

How to Eat Healthy: Raising Nutrition-Smart Kids

Image of pizza nutrition facts via shutterstock.