Monday, July 27, 2009
Image by Phototram.
Last week I came across a very interesting post on Marion Nestle's blog discussing the issue of posting calorie counts on restaurant menus, which has become a surprisingly controversial issue in recent years. For example, in 2008 the president-elect of The Obesity Society (an association of obesity researchers and practitioners which counts both Peter and I as members) was forced to resign following the backlash that erupted when he acted as a paid consultant arguing against a law requiring calorie counts on menus in New York City. Not exactly watergate, but a pretty big deal in the world of obesity research.
Many of us expect that if restaurants are forced to put calorie counts on their menus, they will probably avoid items that include outrageous amounts of calories (as Dr Nestle reports, anecdotal evidence suggests that this is already happening in California, where a recent law required that all fast food chains list calorie counts on their menus), while individuals are also likely to make healthier choices. The problem is that at present, there just isn't that much hard evidence to argue for or against placing calorie counts on menus. So while many of us think it's a logical step toward promoting healthier lifestyles, others argue that we should wait until we have more research.
This is where an interesting editorial by David Ludwig and Kelly Brownell in the Journal of the American Medical Association comes in. In it, Drs Ludwig and Brownell make the case that we should move towards calorie counts on menus now, rather than waiting for scientific certainty. The crux of their argument is this:
1. It is plausible that placing calorie counts on menus will help people reduce their caloric intake.
2. Although current evidence is limited, it appears to support the idea that calorie counts on menus reduce caloric intake.
3. The costs of this move are exceedingly small, since most fast-food restaurants have already calculated the nutritional information for all the items on their menu. The only "cost" is likely to be reduced sales of certain items, which the authors point out, is not a true cost from a public health perspective - in fact it's exactly what we want to happen!
I couldn't agree more. This debate is going to continue to rage on, but there just aren't many good reasons to delay putting calorie counts on menus, and the potential benefits vastly outweigh the potential costs. Placing calorie counts on restaurant menus is an idea whose time has come.
Ludwig, D., & Brownell, K. (2009). Public Health Action Amid Scientific Uncertainty: The Case of Restaurant Calorie Labeling Regulations JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, 302 (4), 434-435 DOI: 10.1001/jama.2009.1045
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