Look who is counting calories…not for themselves but for others – parents for their children. But only if the calorie info is available. This ground-breaking study by researchers at Seattle Children’s Research Institute investigated how parents react to calorie information that, at least in this study, comes with the fast food menus.
The researchers surveyed parents of 3- 6-year olds who occasionally eat in fast food restaurants with their children. 99 parents had to choose from a typical McDonald’s menu which included burgers, fries, salads, and even happy meals. Half of the parents had the usual menu with the prices, pictures of the food from which they would select food for themselves and for children. The other half received a similar menu, but with the calorie content of each food item clearly indicated.
The results indicated that parents tended to choose food items with lower calories for their children. On average, a reduction of 102 calories was observed among those parents who had access to calorie info than those who did not.
Surprisingly though, the parents were not as particular about the calories they take in. Their choices were not affected by the availability of the calorie information.
The study results suggest that nutritional labelling of food, not only in the supermarket but also in restaurants can help parents make smarter and healthier choices for their children. The decrease of 100 calories is equivalent is about 20% of total calorie intake.
According to study leader Dr. Pooja Tandon, research fellow at Seattle Children’s Research Institute and the University of Washington School of Medicine:
“Even modest calorie adjustments on a regular basis can avert weight gain and lead to better health over time. Just an extra 100 calories per day may equate to about ten pounds of weight gain per year. Our national childhood obesity epidemic has grown right alongside our fast food consumption. Anything we can do to help families make more positive choices could make a difference. Interestingly, by simply providing parents the caloric information they chose lower calorie items. This is encouraging, and suggests that parents do want to make wise food decisions for their children, but they need help. Now that some areas are requiring nutritional information in chain restaurants, we have opportunities to further study what happens when we put this knowledge in the hands of parents.”
Several groups and sectors are pushing for nutritional labelling especially in chain restaurants. In the US, there is a growing trend in some states and localities to require nutritional and calorie info to be clearly visible at point-of-order. The possibility of making such a policy mandatory at the federal level is being considered in connection with the health care reform legislation.