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Nearly four in ten American adults are obese according to new government data. That's an all-time high.
The Food and Drug Administration has proposed two rules to help combat this obesity epidemic. The first would require chain restaurants to include calorie counts on their menus so customers can make informed choices. The second would update the Nutrition Facts Label -- the black-and-white nutritional content box found on everything from soda cans to potato chip bags.
Some of the largest food manufacturers and restaurant groups are working overtime to defeat these rules. Deploying the full muscle of their lobbyists, these firms have successfully pressured regulators to delay implementation of the regulations.
Americans can't afford these delays. The obesity epidemic is taking a major toll on our waistlines -- and our wallets.
Obesity puts people at greater risk for many diseases, including diabetes, cancer, stroke, and heart disease. Those four illnesses kill nearly 1.6 million Americans every year, and cost the nation almost $700 billion.
Many believe the solution to this crisis is to just eat healthier. And yes, choosing less-processed foods and ones prepared at home is one step. But that isn't as simple as it sounds for many individuals.
People can't make healthier choices if they don't know the caloric and nutrition content of their meals if they do opt to eat out or buy take out. In one survey of 3,400 fast food customers, on average, respondents underestimated the number of calories in their meals by about 200. More than one in four underestimated by more than 500 calories. That's 25 percent of an average person's daily recommended calories.
Even when foods have a nutrition facts label, Americans have trouble interpreting the information. Half of Americans can't clearly make out a food's sugar content. And many struggle to calculate nutrition information when a package is divided into multiple servings.
When consumers are provided with nutrition information and calorie counts, they do make healthier choices. Restaurant-goers who were given the calorie content of their meals plus information about recommended daily intakes consumed 250 fewer calories than those given no such information, according to a Yale study.
Another FDA analysis found that when packages of food -- like bags of chips -- display their full calorie counts, rather than showing calories per serving, consumers are more likely to choose healthier snacks.
Transparency doesn't just empower consumers to make healthier decisions. It prompts the food industry to eliminate unhealthy ingredients. Back in 2006, the FDA required manufacturers to label foods that contained trans fats, which are closely linked to heart disease. In response, food companies cut the levels of trans fats in their products by 80 percent.
The food industry has been fighting to block calorie counts on menus for years. The FDA first proposed the menu rule in 2010 and spent four years refining it. The agency originally set the compliance date for the end of 2015.
The National Grocers Association, the Food Marketing Institute, and the American Pizza Community all claimed the rule would be too costly. They pressured the FDA to delay the rule three times.
This month, the FDA issued new guidelines for the rule, so it appears it will finally take effect in May 2018 for restaurant menu labeling. But the agency will accept comments for 60 days, which leaves plenty of time for the food industry to potentially push for watered-down regulations or worse -- another delay.
That would be a grave mistake. Since officials started crafting the rule, the obesity rate has shot up 12 percent. It will only increase further with another delay.
The FDA's second proposed rule would require manufacturers to print nutrition labels with realistic serving sizes and easy-to-read calorie counts. Previously, serving sizes didn't reflect how much the average American actually eats.
For instance, the old guidelines counted a half-cup of ice cream as a full serving. Somebody picking up a pint of Ben & Jerry's might have looked at the label and seen "140 calories per serving" -- without realizing there are four servings in a pint!
Importantly, the FDA also added a new line for "added sugar." That's a smart move. It's recommended that people shouldn't consume more than 50 grams of added sugar a day, but many popular products exceed that. A 20-ounce Pepsi, for instance, has 69 grams of added sugar.
Regulators wanted the rule to take effect in 2018. But the big trade associations have pressured the FDA to delay implementation until 2020 for large companies and 2021 for smaller ones.
The obesity epidemic will only worsen -- sickening Americans and bankrupting the health care system -- if regulators continue to cave to the food industry. It's time for restaurants and manufacturers to tell Americans what's really in their food.
Mindy Haar, Ph.D., a registered dietitian, is assistant dean, Undergraduate Affairs, for New York Institute of Technology School of Health Professions.