ASU study: Healthy people save calories on the side

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Food and Drug Administration estimates Americans consume about one-third of their daily meals away from home, where calorie information isn’t always available. To help the public make healthier choices when eating out, a provision of the Affordable Care Act will require restaurants with 20 or more locations to post calorie information on menus and menu boards by May 5.

In a study published this month in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, ASU College of Health Solutions grad student Jessie Gruner added to her previous findings about the relationship between calorie menu label use and calorie consumption by pinpointing how people are saving calories: by making healthier beverage and side choices.

Jessie Gruner

Gruner said the findings can be used to inform national menu labeling campaigns, suggesting they may be more successful if they focus on encouraging healthier beverage and side choices, as opposed to encouraging consumers to swap an entire entrée for a healthier one.

“It’s a lot harder to switch from a quarter pounder to a salad versus switching from Coke to Diet Coke,” she said. “If we can get educational campaigns about menu labeling to focus on sides and beverages, those are areas people can make a pretty easy compromise in.”

Gruner and colleagues collected data from 329 participants in the Phoenix area who had just eaten at a restaurant. Consenting customers submitted their receipts and completed a brief oral survey. Their receipts were used to categorize food and beverage purchases as “healthier” or “less healthy,” in accordance with the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Healthier options contained items promoted in the guidelines, such as fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy and 100 percent fruit juice. Less healthy options contained solid fat or added sugar.

Thirty-four percent of participants who reported using calorie menu labels selected healthier beverages compared with 11.6 percent of non-users, and 7.5 percent of users selected healthier sides compared with 2.5 percent of non-users.

When the mandate kicks in in May, it will include not only restaurants but movie theaters, convenience stores and grocery stores — which are increasingly offering buffet-style food bars and prepared meals such as fried chicken from the deli.

The same font type and size used on the rest of the menus and menu boards must also be used on the caloric information, ensuring it can be easily read.

While Gruner foresees some establishments may push back against the new law considering only 16 percent of the group from her 2015 study reported actually using the calorie labels, she argued that the overall good it can do for the health of Americans outweighs any potentially negative attention restaurants may garner from revealing the calorie count of their less healthy offerings.

And, she added, while menu labeling alone may not solve the obesity problem, “It is another tool people can use to help make healthier decisions.”