BY MARK HUFFMAN
The dramatic rise in obesity has health officials searching for answers. While there may be many contributing factors, there's no question Americans are consuming more daily calories than they did in previous generations.
Food is plentiful, relatively cheap, and packed with calories. When you prepare food at home you can carefully control your caloric intake, but it's harder to do when you dine out.
Restaurants are very competitive and they draw customers with good-tasting fare, served in large portions. The Keystone Forum, funded by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), recently studied the association between food consumed away from home and Americans' tendency to put on weight. It found that the average American now eats at least four meals a week somewhere other than home.
Again, that's a change from 50 years ago when restaurants were less numerous and people ate more meals at home
More recent changes
Even as recently as 1978 Americans only got about 18% of their calories from restaurants. By 1995 that percentage had jumped to 34%.
The Keystone Forum concluded that regularly consuming food prepared away from home is associated with obesity, higher body fat and a higher body mass index (BMI). Women who eat at restaurants more than five times per week end up with 290 more calories per week than women who dine out less often.
A number of restaurant chains, including Subway and McDonald's, post calories on their menus, to help consumers understand how many calories they are consuming when they order a triple-decker hamburger and fries.
In 2010, Congress passed a law requiring restaurant chains with 20 or more outlets to post calories and other nutrition information on menus and menu boards. But some nutrition and health researchers suggest that may not be enough.
Studying small restaurant calories
Researchers at Tufts University analyzed meals from independent and small-chain restaurants, which they say account for approximately 50% of the nation's restaurant locations and are exempt from the new federal rules. They discovered the average single meal was also high in calories – two to three times the estimated calorie needs of an individual adult at a single meal. In fact, the average meal, they say, had 66% of of the calories most people need in a 24-hour period.
"On average, the meals studied contained 1,327 calories, which significantly exceeds the estimated energy needs of an individual adult at a single meal," said Susan B. Roberts, the study's senior author. "Meals from all restaurant types provided substantially more energy than is needed for weight maintenance."
She said nearly three-quarters of the meals analyzed contained more than half of the FDA's daily energy recommendation of 2,000 calories, and 12 meals contained more than the entire recommended daily energy intake.
The study looked at the food typical of small, independent restaurants – Italian, American, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Chinese. It found Italian had the highest average calories – 1,755 – and Vietnamese the lowest – 922. It's conclusion? All restaurants should be covered under the new law.
Promoting healthier choices
The National Restaurant Association, a trade group representing the nation's restaurants, has opposed regulations requiring restaurants to post calorie information. It had pushed voluntary efforts, such as 2011's Kids LiveWell program, to encourage children to choose a restaurant's healthier selections when eating out.
“We are educating consumers and their children in how to dine outside of their homes in more healthful ways and that is a great thing,” said Karen Bremer, executive director of the Georgia Restaurant Association. “As consumers ask for more healthful foods, the industry will provide it. We are one of the quickest industries to respond to our customers’ needs.”
Federal statistics show more than 19% of children ages six to 11 are considered obese, as are 18% of teens ages 12 to 19. The numbers are worse for adults – about 68% are overweight or obese.
So while restaurants may be responding to customers' desires, it's entirely possible they are not responding to their needs.