On Your Health

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Federal Regulations for Calorie Listings: What You Should Expect

19 February 2018

Have you grabbed a bite to eat at your favorite fast food joint recently? If so, you may have noticed a new and possibly shocking number listed next to your favorite food — the number of calories in your menu item!

Calorie listings are popping up everywhere. While the number of calories in fast food doesn’t shock some people, others are less familiar with the nutritional stats of a large fry. Why are restaurants now listing calories on their menus? It’s not the need to shock or shame consumers that’s causing the numbers to stack up, but compliance with federal regulations.

What’s the story?

Back in 2010, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act included new requirements for nutritional labeling. These provisions are now rolling into action. The FDA is requiring certain restaurants and other food retailers, like bakeries and cafés, to provide calorie listings for their standard menu items on in-store menus.

Major chain restaurants, as well as restaurants that have more than 20 locations operating under the same name and offering the same menu items, must comply with regulation standards. Some restaurants not outlined by the regulation’s language can also fall under these standards by registering with the FDA every two years.

The purpose of the regulation is to easily provide consumers with the information they need to make informed eating choices. The regulation’s executive summary designates the over-consumption of calories as a major risk factor in obesity and being overweight. It also says many consumers are unaware of or underestimate the number of calories they’re consuming when eating prepared food outside of their homes. The regulation is intended to encourage healthier and more informed dietary decisions.

When will the regulations take effect?

The official date for restaurants to comply has been pushed back several times since 2010. According to the FDA’s website, the latest compliance date is set for May 7, 2018.  This means restaurants that fall under the regulation’s requirements must update their menus to include nutritional information.

How will these regulations affect Oklahoma?

You may have already noticed calorie listings in restaurants like Panera Bread, Taco Bell and regional favorites like Braum’s. However, you won’t see these listings in smaller, local restaurants that have only one location or in chains with fewer than 20 locations. This applies to restaurants nationwide, including those in Oklahoma.

Physical menus aren’t the only place you will be able to access nutritional information. More detailed information should be located on restaurant websites and available when requested in-store.

Can these regulations help improve overall health?

While seeing the number of calories in your favorite fast food meals may dishearten you, it doesn’t mean you have to stop or feel shameful about eating out. It’s about presenting information that can help consumers make dietary decisions.

“I think it’s a good idea to provide as much nutrition information as possible so that consumers can make an informed decision, not for judgmental purposes or shaming,” says INTEGRIS dietitian Pamela Patty.

Providing knowledge is important, especially for people who are trying to lose or manage weight by counting calories. “If someone is counting calories as a part of their weight management strategy, I think it’s helpful to have the calorie count readily available,” she says.

However, Patty says when it comes to choosing a healthy meal, calorie value shouldn’t be the only factor when you decide what to eat. For overall health, you need to focus on more than just weight loss or the number you see on the scale as your only goals. Maintaining a healthy body goes beyond calorie counting.

“If someone dismisses a choice solely based on a calorie value, I believe that is a negative thing,” Patty says. “People need to understand that food and beverages are the way to get fuel to their bodies and they need to provide their bodies with a large variety of nutrients. To achieve a positive health outcome, you can’t focus simply on calories alone, but the overall nutrients provided.”

These nutrients include protein, vitamins and healthy fats — the things we need to make our bodies work properly. Some meals may contain higher calories than others, but may be a better choice if they’re nutritionally dense.

It’s not nutritionally healthy to grab a high-calorie, low-nutrient meal every day, but informed decisions and moderation will allow you to live a healthy lifestyle while enjoying the food you love.

For more healthy eating tips, check out these On Your Health blogs on nutrition and recipes!