Sticker Shock

PETER SILAS PASQUA news@postsouth.com
Ryan Young of White Castle reaches for a candy bar in a vending machine at a basketball tournament at Brusly High School in November.
POST SOUTH PHOTO/Peter Silas Pasqua

A Big Mac, a large Coke and large fries has 1,360 calories — more than three times the recommended calorie allowance for a meal.

Public health officials hope seeing calorie counts like these on restaurant menus and vending machines will lead consumers to make healthier food choices and help reduce obesity in America. But as Americans increasingly op for meals outside the home, the battle's quickly becoming uphill.

'Healthy' options

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 requires restaurants with 20 or more locations to post calorie counts on menus. According to the Food and Drug Administration, 280,000 of the United State's 600,000 restaurants will be subject to the new regulations.

In September, McDonald's was one of the first large fast food chains to roll out the new menus.

Starting in 2013, the American Beverage Association is launching its Calories Count program with Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, where calorie information will be posted on vending machines. The program is first rolling out in a few cities, then going nation-wide.

Whether the up-front information will lead to healthier choices is still up for debate.

Deanna Landry has two sons, Colby Landry, a senior, and Gavin Landry, a freshmen, that play football, basketball and baseball at St. John High School of Plaquemine. Landry believes obesity is a problem locally but it hasn't affected her kids.

"It is not a big problem with my kids but I know a lot of people that watch what their kids eat," Landry said. "Mine burn everything off so they need to eat as much as they can."

Landry said her boys only drink Powerade, orange juice and water. She cooks supper every night and likes the idea that calories will be listed on menus and vending machines.

"They eat whatever I cook," Landry said. "I like to know what I am eating so I can keep track but you have to make sure your kids exercise."

Stephanie O'Bear has twin daughters, Skylar O'Bear and Shylar O'Bear, both sophomores that participate in basketball, volleyball, softball and track at White Castle High School. Her eldest child, son Isaac O'Bear, graduated last year. O'Bear, too, believes obesity is a problem in the area but doesn't see it in her own children.

"A lot of people are not eating healthy and exercising like they are supposed to," O'Bear said. "My kids are fine because we don't eat fried foods. We grill and bake everything at my house."

O'Bear said she does limit sweets but her daughters have become accustomed to it and taken the reigns themselves.

"They have gotten used to it," O'Bear said. "When they go to the store, the first thing they do is turn the package over to see how many calories are in it."

O'Bear also said she believes displaying the number of calories on vending machines and menus will have a positive impact.

"The kids get hungry and are going to use the vending machines, so if healthy snacks are in there, they are going to eat them," O'Bear said. "By putting a label on it, I think it will lead to a healthier lifestyle for everybody. It will make a difference."

Michelle Sanchez is the mother of two sons, Derek Sanchez, a senior, and Kolbi Sanchez, a sophomore, that are on the football and baseball teams at Plaquemine High School. A third child, daughter Myranda Sanchez is in college.

Sanchez said the children have been cautious about what they eat after seeing their father, Glen Sanchez, suffer from diabetes for the past eight years and believe the posting of calories will be helpful.

"The kids have actually followed diets," Sanchez said. "I limit them but they limit themselves when they are on their own.

"After talking with us and their coaches, they have got to a point where they know what to stay away from. Since they started playing football, my boys don't eat at McDonald's unless it is the last resort. Plus, I think they understand you always have to exercise."

The percentage of calories Americans consume away from home has almost doubled since the late 1970s, according to the USDA Economic Research Service — and it's affecting our health and waistlines.

A study from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute published in 2004 indicated young adults who eat frequently at fast food restaurants gain more weight and have a greater increase in insulin resistance in early middle age.

Insulin resistance is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes, and diabetes is a major risk factor for heart disease.

Expanding awareness, waistlines

As Americans' eating out habits have increased, so has the nation's obesity rate.

The percentage of children in the United States who were obese increased from 7 percent in 1980 to almost 20 percent in 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Adolescents saw a similar increase.

More than one-third of U.S. adults are obese, resulting in about $147 billion in health care costs in 2008, according to the CDC.

Jim White, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said calorie awareness is important for addressing overeating in America.

"I don't think it is going to harm anything," he said of posting calorie counts on menus. "I think some people are going to be alarmed at the calories in some common restaurant items. A common restaurant meal can be 800 to 1,000 calories. I recommend a lot women have a 400-calorie per meal plan. They are getting 75 percent of their calories for a normal day in one meal."

Whether the calorie shock will truly dissuade consumers from ordering high-calorie, high-fat foods remains to be seen.

Two major university studies have shown conflicting results of posting calories counts on menus.

A Stanford study of Starbucks consumers showed a 6 percent decrease in calorie consumption when food calorie counts were posted on menus.

A New York University research study had different results.

NYU researchers found about 28 percent of New York City customers who saw calorie labeling indicated the information influenced their choices.

However, the participants' receipts showed they purchased about the same amount of calories before the labeling went into effect and the same amount as consumers where labeling was not required.

Teetering on the edge of health

Despite the calorie postings, some consumers will continue to opt for high-calorie, high-fat choices, with convenience and cost being large factors in those decisions, White said.

White noted many of the items on fast food dollar menus are the higher calorie foods, which may make it more difficult for consumers with fewer economic resources to make healthy choices.

"I think there are definitely certain people who will not opt for a healthy lifestyle, regardless," he said, "but I think there is a certain population that is teetering and might choose a healthier lifestyle if they had the information. It is that middle population we are looking at."

White said creating calories awareness at restaurants may lead to healthier eating at home.

"If you can eat healthy at a fast food restaurant, you can eat healthy anywhere," White said. "If you can face great tasting things like cheeses and butter and tasty fried foods, you've dodged a bullet."