September 27, 2004. Ignorance is bliss, and even people who know they need to stick to a healthy diet are tempted to quit reading small print and head for unlabeled calories. The nearest salad bar, fast food diner or upscale restaurant will oblige.
So will our own psychology. People routinely underestimate the amount of fat and calories in restaurant meals, sometimes by very significant amounts. That's the message University of Arkansas researchers Scot Burton and Elizabeth Creyer have for Americans who dine out.
"We found that most people tend to think of a 'bad' meal as having maybe 700 or 800 calories," Creyer explained. "In fact, an average super-sized fast food meal typically has double that number of calories and more than 40 grams of fat."
And when people are served plates of food piled much higher than they normally serve themselves, they eat the extra without noticing. A study by Cornell University researchers finds that when young adults are served larger portions from one week to the next they overeat by almost 40 percent. Eating larger portions over time could account for the growth of the American girth over the past 20 years, the researchers say.
"The more food we served to the college-student volunteers in our eating study, the more they ate," says David Levitsky, professor of nutritional sciences and of psychology at Cornell. "Since we know that restaurants are serving larger and larger food portions, we think that larger portions could be a major factor responsible for the increase in overweight and obesity that is so evident today."
The Arkansas diet hawks checked how accurately consumers estimate nutritional content of restaurant meals. On the positive side, when information is printed on the menu, diners are more likely to favor foods with fewer calories and less fat, even if the healthier choices are slightly more expensive.
But why would restaurent owners want to spoil our greedy appetites and ruin the ambience with thoughts of diets? Most restaurants don't include nutrition information on their menus, Burton and Creyer point out, "so, as we have discovered, people really have no concept of just how many calories and how much fat and sodium they’re consuming. As we consider the problem of obesity and obesity-related diseases in the United States, that fact could have some very significant consequences.”
Americans spend more than $1 billion a day on restaurant food, and the figures are still growing. Unlike packaged foods, which are required by law to supply nutrition information on their labels, restaurants are not obliged to provide consumers with nutrition information for their menu items.
Although some restaurants, particularly major fast food chains, have made such information available, they usually put it in small print, out of reach posters or through corporate web sites or brochures, so most consumers never see it.
So diners can only guess the fat and calorie content of their meals. How good are we guessing? While many have a notion about the nutrition content for ‘healthy’ foods (i.e., a chicken breast or plain turkey sandwich) , when asked about the fat and calorie content of ‘unhealthy’ items, like a large hamburger with french fries, Burton and Creyer discovered that most diners’ guesses are wrong—very wrong.
"I think it was a real eye-opener for some people," Burton said. "For instance, most diners perceive a chef salad to be a 'healthy" choice because it's a salad, but they don’t realize that when you add all of the meats, cheeses and heavy dressings, you can get nearly as many calories as in a hamburger and more than a day's worth of fat. Having this information really can cause diners to rethink what they’re eating and to make healthier selections."
"It has been estimated that more than 400,000 people die each year from obesity and obesity-related diseases," Burton noted. "As long as people are eating so much food outside the home without being conscious of the amount of fat and calories they’re consuming while also failing to exercise regularly, those statistics may be unlikely to change."
Burton and Creyer support the Menu Education and Labeling (MEAL) Act, introduced in 2003 by Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut. This bill would require that all restaurant chains with more than 20 outlets list information such as calories, saturated fat and sodium content for all items on their menus. Fast food restaurant chains would be required to list just calories.
"Basically, the bottom line, from our perspective, is that consumers have to be motivated to make wise choices, but to make wise choices they must have information. This is simply a way of providing that information," he said.
Creyer and Burton are quick to point out that there are advantages for restaurants in becoming more nutrition-minded. In their study, they found that many consumers are willing to make a trade-off between price and nutrition. If they have the option of a more healthful menu item, they tend to choose it, even if it is a bit more expensive than a less healthy one.
Some restaurant chains have taken a proactive approach and are already beginning to include nutrition information on their menus.
"This can be a wise strategy," Burton said. "Restaurants who take this proactive approach will be viewed as more health conscious and have the potential to reposition themselves relative to competitors and achieve a competitive advantage in the marketplace."
The research conducted by Burton, Creyer and graduate students Jeremy Kees and Kyle Huggins was presented at the Marketing and Public Policy Conference, where it received the best conference paper award.
An article about David Levitsky's research obesity is online at Cornell: Why Some People Get Fat And Others Don't: Too Much Much Snacking and Too Little Moving
For healthy recipes check out Potluck and Lenny Hirsch's recipes. <<< Lenny's Intro
And you might like to try the Ratattouille recipe at AARP's online magazine or their Spicy Salsa Chicken Grill (a diabetic recipe).