by Beth Bradshaw | December 10, 2019 10:31 am
Florence Sheen is a PhD student researcher from the University of Liverpool who has recently completed her studies and passed her viva. As a member of the Appetite and Obesity group in Psychological Sciences, her research focused on investigating some potential explanations for why we overeat from larger portions, and she is interested in the food environment and how it can be improved.
Imagine you and your family go out for an evening meal at a restaurant. You sit down at your table, read the menu, choose your favourite meal and order it. Let’s say you order a salad meal, fries, and ice cream. Now imagine the next week you go to a different restaurant and order the same meal. Would you consume a similar number of calories on both occasions? Our recent research suggests otherwise.
Imagine the first restaurant serves the lowest calorie options of the aforementioned meal items1: a salad meal (247kcal), fries (107kcal), and ice cream (99kcal). You would have consumed a total of 453kcal at this restaurant. Now imagine the second restaurant serves the highest calorie options of these items: salad meal (1353kcal), fries (1256kcal), and ice cream (2203kcal). You would have consumed 4812kcal in a single main meal at the second restaurant, over 10 times the calories consumed in the meal at the first restaurant, more than twice the recommended daily energy intake for a female adult (2000kcal) and nearly more than twice that for male adult (2500kcal).
Although the second scenario is in the extreme, overconsumption in restaurants is very common. The average restaurant main meal is 997kcal, more than the public health recommendation of 600kcal for a lunch or dinner meal. A previous study found that the percentage of meals that met this recommendation was low (9%) and smaller than the percentage of meals with excess energy content (47%), defined as more than 1000kcal. Furthermore, the average calorie contents of a typical starter (488kcal), side (398kcal) and dessert (431kcal) are all very high. Our recent study found that the percentage of dishes exceeding 600kcal was 26.4% for starters, 21.7% for sides and 20.5% for desserts. On top of this, a lot of variability remains between restaurants, even (as can be seen in the above example) for the same menu item.
So why do the calorie contents differ so widely and, more importantly, why don’t we know about it? Both are potentially rooted in the same problem: calorie labelling. Currently, calorie labelling on menus is not mandatory, so it is not always clear to individuals how much they are (over)consuming at a given meal. On the other hand, food retailers do not have to worry about the fact that their portion of fries exceeds the recommended calories for a main meal if the customer will not see this information at the point of choice or purchase (e.g. on the menu). A recent study found that, out of 104 popular restaurant chains examined, only 17% provided in-store calorie labelling, and this information tended not to adhere to recommended labelling practices. Therefore, individuals may be overconsuming by nearly twice the recommended daily energy intake, and be unaware that they are doing so, putting their health at risk. In 2018, the government called for views on making calorie labelling on menus mandatory, on which we are still waiting to hear the outcome.
Although, do we really need, or want, to see the number of calories we are consuming when we are out celebrating a special occasion or having a treat? Some would argue that this is another example of a ‘nanny state’ approach to influencing people’s food choices. However, eating out is no longer the rare occasion it used to be, as it is now a relatively frequent and affordable event for many people. For instance, the Food Standards Agency stated this year that 11%, 29% and 27% of adults report eating breakfast, lunch, dinner respectively outside of the home at least once a week. In an environment that encourages overconsumption (and therefore weight gain) and is not conducive to healthy weight maintenance or weight loss, people require clear information to make informed choices regarding the food they purchase and consume.
But will people make better choices with this information? Would it influence their consumption outside of the home? A recent study2 suggests that it would in two ways: they observed both a reduction in the number of calories ordered by consumers and a reduction in the energy content of menu items provided by restaurants when the energy content of meals was displayed at the point of choice. Thus, mandatory calorie labelling could both provide individuals with information with which to make informed, healthier choice when eating out and have a positive impact on what’s on the menu. Ultimately, this would help towards creating a food environment in which making informed, healthier choices would be slightly easier than it currently is.
However, it must be noted that calorie labelling is likely to have only a small effect on daily energy intake across the population, and so a policy to make calorie labelling mandatory would probably not drastically decrease obesity levels in the UK; this is, after all, only one element in a complex obesogenic environment, and it is only through a systematic approach that we can tackle this problem. Therefore, a combination of this and other population-wide interventions will be more likely to have a substantial impact on diet and reduce obesity.
In conclusion, the average energy content of main meals in U.K. chain restaurants is high, typically exceeding recommendations for a given lunch or dinner meal. Furthermore, one in four starters and one in five sides and desserts in UK chain restaurants also exceed the recommended energy intake for a meal. We believe that mandatory calorie labelling could positively impact people’s diets, providing individuals with the information they need to make informed, healthier choices when eating outside of the home. It may also have further positive effects on the calorie content of food in restaurants and fast food chains and help towards making our environment one that is more health-promoting.
1This is using the lowest and higher average kcal content values of a salad meal by full-service restaurant from Robinson and colleagues (2018), and the lowest and higher kcal content options of fries and dessert from Muc and colleagues (2019)
2 From a comprehensive analysis by Zlatevska, Neumann, and Dubelaar (2018).
Muc, M., Jones, A., Roberts, C., Sheen, F., Haynes, A., & Robinson, E. (2019). A bit or a lot on the side? Observational study of the energy content of starters, sides and desserts in major UK restaurant chains. BMJ Open, 9(10), e029679. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2019-029679
Robinson, E., Jones, A., Whitelock, V., Mead, B. R., & Haynes, A. (2018). (Over)eating out at major UK restaurant chains: observational study of energy content of main meals. BMJ, 363, 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k4982
Zlatevska, N., Neumann, N., & Dubelaar, C. (2018). Mandatory Calorie Disclosure: A Comprehensive Analysis of Its Effect on Consumers and Retailers. Journal of Retailing, 94(1), 89–101. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jretai.2017.09.007
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