When Morgan Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days in his 2004 documentary Super Size Me, he gained 24 pounds, his cholesterol shot up 65 points, his body fat percentage went from 11 to 18% and he nearly doubled his risk of coronary heart disease.
That might be because a Big Mac contains 550 calories and 29 grams of fat, a large order of french fries has 500 calories and 25 grams of fat and even breakfast items can be up to 1,150 calories.
Restaurant-goers won’t be able to ignore nutrition facts like these now that the popular fast-food chain has begun posting calorie counts on menu boards and drive-thru menus.
Christina Roberto, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society Scholar at Harvard University, said the move is one that other restaurants will likely have to follow in the future — President Obama’s healthcare reform includes a proposed regulation that would require chain restaurants to post calorie counts on menus and menu boards.
The regulation is still under review by the Food and Drug Administration.
“In general, this is a hot topic,” said Roberto, who has studied menu labeling. “The industry is concerned about policies that either detract customers from coming or hurt their bottom line.”
But students see the potential of McDonald’s latest move to help their peers make better diet choices.
“A lot of times, when people don’t know what they’re eating, they’re more inclined to eat less healthy foods,” said Gregory Hill, a junior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Now they can’t make the excuse that they didn’t know how bad it was.”
Especially on college campuses, where students might not have time to exercise and for the first time don’t have parents monitoring their diets, Hill feels it’s important to keep an eye on what they eat.
“Obesity rates are already rising so fast in America, so I think it’s definitely important we know what we’re eating,” he said.
More than one-third of U.S. adults are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Obesity-related conditions include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, some of the leading causes of preventable death.
“The obesity epidemic has definitely put nutrition on the radar screen,” said Rose Martin, a senior lecturer at Iowa State University and registered dietitian. “The obesity epidemic is hitting a younger age. We just can’t see anything good coming out of that.”
Roberto said studies showed that menu labeling did lead people to eat less, and when it was accompanied by statements that said they should eat 2,000 calories per day, the effects lasted longer.
“When that anchor statement was on the menu, they went home and didn’t overeat,” she said. “Menu labels can get people to order less and eat less calories, but it’s important to give them that information to contextualize it.”
There are ongoing discussions about how to present the information to consumers, Roberto said, that include whether to color-code high and low-calorie items or include statements about how much to exercise to burn off the calories, for example.
“People are thinking about creative ways to get this information out to the public,” she said.
There are students who are more skeptical about the power of menu labeling to affect consumers’ decisions.
“For people that actually pay attention to it, it might change their mind,” said Emily Tillmaand, a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “But if they’re already ordering something at McDonald’s, they’re going to order it no matter what the calorie count is.”
And students should be more concerned about the nutritional value of the food they eat than the amount of calories they consume, Tillmaand said.
“Calories don’t matter to me,” she said. “It’s about the nutritional value of what you’re eating.”
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