by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Calorie-labeling

Mar 23 2010

Calorie labeling to go national!

The impossibly impenetrable health care bill that just passed the House has one little piece of good news buried in it: national calorie labeling.

The provision covers chains with 20 outlets throughout the country and is supposed to go into effect in a year or so.  It also covers vending machines!  These are great steps.  Calorie labeling has two effects.  It educates anyone who is interested to look and think about it.  And it encourages chain restaurants to offer lower calorie options.  See note below giving the index to this section.

Cheers to Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has lobbied for years to get this into law.

Note:  Thanks to Ellen Fried for sending me this link to an Index to the menu labeling provision.

Jan 6 2010

How many extra calories cause weight gain?

For years, some people – not me – have been saying that eating one extra 50-calorie cookie a day can make you put on 5 pounds per year.  This calculation comes from basic math: if about 3500 extra calories make you put on a pound of body fat, then 50 times 365 is 18,250 extra calories which, divided by 3500,  equals about 5 pounds.

This never made sense to me.  It is impossible to know how much you are eating each day within 50 calories let alone how many calories you are using in daily activities.  Yet people used to be able to keep their weight steady without thinking about calories at all.

This is because the body regulates weight and can easily compensate for such small changes in calorie intake or output with small changes in metabolic rate.  It takes more calories to move heavier bodies, and fewer to move lighter ones.

For years, I’ve been thinking that it must take a lot more than 50 extra calories a day – I guessed hundreds –  to make people gain weight.  I thought this for two reasons:

First reason: Portion sizes have increased greatly in recent years, and larger portions have more calories.  Sometimes, they have a lot more.  Foods eaten outside the home often have more calories in them than anyone suspects.

That’s why calorie labeling matters.  Labeling may underestimate the actual calories present in a food according to Tufts researchers (see this week’s Time for commentary and also see the industry response).  But even so, a new study shows that labeling encourages people to cut down on food intake, at least at Starbucks.  Make that two new studies: one from the Rudd Center at Yale comes to the same conclusion.

Second reason: I keep hearing from pediatricians who treat overweight kids that they have kids in their practices who drink from 1,000 to 2,000 calories a day from sodas alone.  I can’t judge whether these figures are correct or not, but several different kinds of studies suggest that many people today are eating a lot more calories than their counterparts of 25 years ago.

Now Martin Katan and David Ludwig have done the actual calculations in a paper in this week’s JAMA titled “Extra calories cause weight gain–but how much?”  Their conservative estimate is that it would take an excess of 370 calories to gain 35 pounds in 28 years.   To become obese in 25 years, you would need to eat 680 calories a day more than you expended.

To become 58 pounds overweight at age 17, they predict that a child would need to overconsume 700 to 1,000 calories a day from the age of 5 or so.

These figures are quite consistent with what those pediatricians were telling me.  By other estimates, average caloric intake has increased by 200-500 calories a day since the early 1980s, along with a 700 calorie-a-day rise in the availability of energy in the food supply (from 3,200 to 3,900 per day per capita).

As Katan and Ludwig conclude:

small changes in lifestyle would have a minor effect on obesity prevention.  Walking an extra mile a day expends, roughly an additional 60 kcal compared with resting – equal to the energy in a small cookie.  Physiological considerations suggest that the apparent energy imbalance for much of the US population is 5- to 10-fold greater, far beyond the ability of most individuals to address on a personal level.  Rather, an effective public health approach to obesity prevention will require fundamental changes in the food supply and the social infrastructure.

This is because on the personal level, prevention of weight gain means eating hundreds of calories a day less.  Moving more, useful as it is, will not do the trick unless people eat less as well.

On the societal level, we need measures to make it easier for people to eat less.

I can think of a bunch of examples.  You?

Oct 7 2009

What’s up with calorie labeling?

So the New York Times ran a story about early research on the impact of New York City’s calorie labeling postings by fast food restaurants.  The research, done by some of my New York University colleagues, looked at what customers said they were doing and compared what they said to what they actually did.  Oops.  Customers said the labeling made them choose foods more carefully but they actually bought more calories.

So, should we give up on this idea?  No way.  These are preliminary results looking at what happened during the first few weeks of calorie labeling in fast food places in low-income areas of New York City.  In such areas, restaurant choices are few, cheap food is a necessity, and people go to fast food places precisely because they can get lots of calories at low cost.

I can think of several excellent reasons for calorie labeling, none of them addressed by this particular study and all of them supported by considerable observational evidence:

  • People do not understand calories very well; calorie labeling can begin the education process especially if accompanied by materials explaining that most people require about 2,000 calories a day.
  • Some people – not all, of course – will change their behavior and choose lower calorie items when they realize how many calories are in fast food.
  • Fast food places will reduce the number of calories in the items they serve.

This last may be the most important.  Just as labeling the amount of trans fat in processed foods caused food manufacturers to eliminate trans fats from their products, so fast food sellers are looking for ways to reduce the calories in their products.  This is already happening and is the easiest way I can think of to encourage people to eat less: don’t serve as much.

Oct 2 2009

Coca-Cola reveals calories?

Well, sort of reveals.  Coca-Cola announces that it will put calories on the front of its packages (so you don’t have to search for and put on glasses to read the Nutrition Facts).  You can see what the label will look like in the story in USA Today.

calories01x-large

This sounds good but I view this action as another end run around FDA’s proposed regulations.  In March 2004, the FDA proposed to require the full number of calories to be placed on the front of food packages likely to be consumed by one person, like a 20-ounce soda for example (see figure).  A 20-ounce soda is 275 calories, not 100.

FDA

If Coca-Cola followed that FDA proposal, a label of a 2-liter bottle would have to say 800 Calories right on the front of the package.

This idea got stuck in Bush administration but there’s a good chance the new folks at FDA might take it up again.

Is Coca-Cola serious about helping people avoid obesity?  If so, maybe it could send out a press release distancing itself from those consumer-unfriendly ads run by the Center for Consumer Freedom (see previous post).

Here’s another question: Does Coca-Cola fund the CCF directly or indirectly through the American Beverage Assocation or some other industry trade group?  I will believe that they might really have an interest in consumer health when I know they have no connection whatsoever to CCF and its current ad campaigns.

Jul 28 2009

Kaiser-Permanente does menu labeling

Kaiser-Permanente hospital cafeterias in California, Oregon, and Hawaii will soon be displaying information about calories and nutrition on menu boards.  This huge not-for-profit HMO has a huge not-for-profit focus on preventive health.  It figured out a long time ago that healthy people don’t cost as much to take care of, and it constantly seeks new ways to encourage its members to stay healthy.  That’s why it sponsored a study to find out whether menu labeling helps people make healthier food choices.  Guess what: it does.

Now, if only for-profit hospitals would start doing the same….

[Posted from London]

Jul 22 2009

What’s new with calorie labeling?

For starters, calorie labeling in California is having a big effect – on the companies, if not customers.  The chains are madly cutting down on calories.  The most impressive example is a Macaroni Grill 1,270-calorie scallop-and-spinach salad (I can’t even imagine how they did this), which is now just a normal 390.

Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has a website devoted exclusively to calorie and other menu labeling initiatives where it tracks the legislation year by year and posts a handy map of what states and cities are doing on this issue.

And the latest issue of JAMA has a commentary by David Ludwig and Kelly Brownell about why it’s important to get calorie labeling in place even before we can get evidence for its effectiveness” For some of the most important public health problems today, society does not have the luxury to await scientific certainty…For restaurant calorie labeling regulation, there is a clear rationale for action.”

As to how well the system is working, try the Wall Street Journal’s take on the accuracy of the calorie counts.  Sigh.  Plenty of work left to do on this one.  But worth doing, no?

July 24 update: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is keeping track of the research along with policy implications.  The bottom line to date?  Menu labeling is having some effects, but there’s more work to do.

Jul 3 2009

The latest statistics on obesity

I am always indebted to Joel Moskowitz of the University of California School of Public Health’s Center for Family and Community Health for his almost daily forwarding of research on obesity.  His recent postings include data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).  The CDC has just released preliminary results of the 2008 National Health Interview Survey.  These include, among other measures, data charts and tables on obesity (rates still rising steadily since 1997), physical activity (no measurable change), and diabetes (rising in parallel with obesity).

Interpretation: if physical activity rates have not changed, then the reason obesity rates are going up is because people are eating more calories.

Plenty of evidence backs up this idea.  All you need to do to see why people are eating more is to take a look at Time magazine’s discussion of the implications of calorie labeling: “Would you like 1,000 calories with that?”

Jun 18 2009

Food legislation (maybe)

Legislators in the new administration are working on food laws.  Here is a quick sample:

Calorie labeling: it looks like we have bipartisan support for national menu labeling.  If passed, calories will have to be disclosed on menu boards of fast food and vending machine chains throughout the country – and not just in New York City and the few states that have passed their own laws.   Lots of health organizations are backing this proposal.

Food safety: the House just passed its version of a bill that will overhaul some aspects of the present food safety system.  This bill still has a long way to go but is a hopeful sign that Congress might actually do something to fix the FDA.  What the bill does not do is deal with fixing the system.  It exempts meat, poultry, and eggs under USDA jurisdiction.

Produce safety: The new head of the FDA, Margaret Hamburg, says her agency is going to put special efforts into ensuring the safety of high-risk produce. To do that, she will need Congress to pass laws that, among other things, give the FDA the authority to order recalls and a lot more money to carry out its work.

Organics: The U.S. and Canada have agreed to coordinate their organic standards, so foods certified organic in Canada can be sold here and vice versa.  Let’s hope the most stringent standards prevail.

These are (somewhat) hopeful signs.  Let’s hope Congress manages to keep at this and tries to get it right.

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