Eating in the dark can be dangerous

A 500-calorie bagel with cream cheese on your way to work. A 700-calorie sandwich for lunch, plus an extra 150 calories if you get chips instead of carrots on the side. A 400-calorie afternoon coffee drink. A 350-calorie margarita after work. And a 1,500-calorie chicken quesadilla with friends for dinner.

It’s easy to see why obesity rates are so high — dozens of studies show that eating out more frequently is associated with obesity.

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The average American, who should consume about 2,000 calories a day, eats out six times a week. That’s enough to lead to over-consuming calories not just on the days a person eats out, but also to exceed calorie requirements over the course of the whole week. One study found that women who eat out more than five times a week consume about 290 more calories on average each day than women who eat out less often.

Big portions in restaurants mean we often get a lot more food than we realize, or than we may want or need. It’s tough to accurately estimate the calorie content of popular restaurant foods, even for dietitians. Who can tell that a cinnamon roll (510 calories) has more than double the calories in a glazed donut (220), or that a typical tuna salad sandwich has almost 50 percent more calories (720) than a roast beef sandwich (460)?

The high calorie counts of restaurant foods didn’t matter so much when eating out was an occasional treat. Going out to a restaurant was a big deal when I was young, and not just because I have 10 brothers and sisters. In the 1970s, families spent about a third of their food dollars on away-from-home foods. Today, it’s about half. Given the growing role of restaurant food in our diets, what we eat at restaurants affects our health more than in the past.

To help people make informed choices at restaurants, we worked with Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) to pass a national menu-labeling policy in 2010. The law requires calories be listed on menus and menu boards at chain restaurants with 20 or more outlets. Like few policies today, the provision was bipartisan, and it had strong support from not only public health groups, but also the restaurant industry.

The Food and Drug Administration proposed sensible menu-labeling regulations in April 2011 and was expected to finalize them by the end of that year. Yet two years after the law’s enactment, most Americans are still unable to make informed choices when eating out.

Some conservatives are railing against all regulation, and the administration is being overly cautious as the election approaches. But people want to know what they’re eating. A recent poll found that 80 percent of Americans want menu labeling in restaurants, supermarkets and other purveyors of prepared food. State and local menu-labeling policies in Vermont, Philadelphia and Seattle have been popular with customers.

Other state and local policies are on hold until the administration finalizes national regulations. They’ve passed their own menu-labeling laws, but are preempted from implementing anything different from the federal rules. In May, Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) wrote in a letter to the president, “We are pleased that menu labeling will be implemented nationally, but eager for Oregonians to benefit from expanded access to nutrition information as soon as possible.”

Earlier this spring, 20 leading health groups called on the Obama administration to finalize the labeling rules and apply them to all restaurant-type foods and all menu items, as Congress intended.

Menu labeling will help improve Americans’ diets and reduce their risk of obesity and other nutrition-related health problems. Studies show that providing nutrition information at restaurants can help people make lower-calorie choices. The biggest study, one by Stanford University researchers of Starbucks cafés, found that menu labeling reduced calories in customers’ purchases by 6 percent. If people make similar changes in other chain restaurants — and an estimated 25 percent of calories consumed come from chains — that would mean a decrease of 30 calories per person per day, population-wide. Not bad, given that the obesity epidemic is explained by an imbalance of less than 100 calories per day. Calorie labeling also will encourage restaurants to add more low-calorie options and reduce calories in other items.

Without clear, easy-to-find calorie labeling, it’s tough to make informed choices for what is a growing and often problematic part of our diets. It’s time for the administration to finalize sensible menu-labeling regulations so people are free to make up their own minds about how many calories they really want to eat when eating out.

Wootan is director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.