For Immediate Release
March 25, 2010

KDHE Office of Communications
communications@kdheks.gov, 785-296-0461

Menu-Labeling to Win the Struggle Against Obesity

An Op-Ed Column by Jason Eberhart-Phillips, MD
Kansas State Health Officer

For people trying to watch their weight, eating out presents a challenge.

For them, each item on the menu amounts to a guessing game: How many calories does the meal I’m considering contain? How much of my daily calorie budget will this or that delicious item on the menu cost me?

Thanks to new federal legislation, help is on the way.

Buried deep in the health reform bill passed this week by the U.S. Congress is a provision requiring chain restaurants with 20 or more outlets to disclose the number of calories on their menus or menu boards. Additional nutrition information will be made available upon request.

Regardless of your views on the overall health reform bill, the arrival of menu-labeling is great news for public health, particularly in the fight against the burden of obesity.

To understand why, imagine a menu without prices, where diners have no idea how much their food costs until they have to pay. That’s just how it feels today for weight-conscious diners trying to keep track of how much their restaurant meals are costing their health.

Most adults should eat about 2,000 calories a day to maintain a healthy weight. With just a few calories more each day, the pounds begin to pile on.

For foods bought in the supermarket and eaten at home, there is almost always a familiar “Nutrition Facts” label, providing calorie and other key nutritional information for each serving in the package. Such labels have been required by law since 1990.

But until now diners in restaurants have been on their own.

In restaurants there has been an asymmetry of information between buyer and seller. The buyers – diners looking for a healthy meal – have been largely left in the dark to make vague judgments about just how fattening each option on the menu may be.

It turns out that judging the calorie content of restaurant foods is harder than it looks. Who would know that a 16-ounce white chocolate mocha would have more than three times as many calories as the same sized cappuccino from a popular national chain?

Even dieticians and other nutrition experts can’t get it right. In controlled studies they typically underestimate the calories in popular restaurant foods by 30 percent or more.

But now restaurant diners will be coming in from the dark.

Restaurant chains know how many calories their food items contain. Typically they provide this information on their websites, or in fine-print posters displayed in their establishments.

Now this information will be presented clearly and simply at the point of purchase. When the law takes effect in 2011, you will find the number of calories posted right beside the price on the menu or on the menu boards in chain restaurants throughout the country.

Many states, counties and cities have already adopted menu-labeling in recent years, and Kansans who have visited other parts of the country have discovered how helpful this information can be in making healthy choices for their restaurant meals. Now they can have such help when they eat out in Kansas too.

The federal initiative, which brought together language from two earlier proposals, had won bipartisan support and was endorsed by both the National Restaurant Association and public health advocates before its inclusion in the larger health reform package. Nearly everyone agrees that this is one part of federal health reform bill that will improve health and cut costs in the long-term.

One study performed in the fast-food mecca of Los Angeles estimated that annual community weight gain would be cut by 38 percent if California’s new menu-labeling law – which is similar to the new federal statute – would prompt only 10 percent of fast food patrons to reduce their intake by just 100 calories each time they ate out.

Our state’s obesity epidemic already accounts for more than 10 percent of state-supported health care spending in Kansas. Without the recent surge in obesity, our state’s budget would be far easier to balance without painful new taxes or cuts in services.

Continued weight gain across the population, particularly in our children, is not sustainable for our state’s economy or our quality of life.

Of course, menu-labeling cannot reverse the obesity epidemic by itself. But it is an important step that will make a welcome difference in our struggle with obesity, a step that will cost almost nothing to implement.

Menu-labeling will empower people to take responsibility for their health, and the health of their families. It will give them the means to do what they already know they should do, to avoid the added calories that lead to excess weight. It provides transparency.

For more than a million Kansans, keeping off unwanted weight has been very hard to do. But with menu-labeling becoming the law of the land, maintaining a healthy weight may start to get a little easier.

Dr. Eberhart-Phillips is the Kansas State Health Officer and Director of Health in the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. He can be reached at jeberhart-phillips@kdheks.gov. Previous columns are now available online at Dr. Jason’s Blog, www.kdheks.gov/blogs/dr_jasons_blogs.htm.