Big restaurant chains are adding lower-calorie items to their menus—on average 12 percent lower in calories than past offerings .
In 2012 and 2013 , the chains—whose core menu offerings are generally high in calories, fat, and sodium—introduced new food and beverage options that, on average , contained 60 fewer calories than existing choices , researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health say .
That’s a 12 percent cut and potentially more significant than it sounds, they say . On a typical day, studies have shown, 33 percent of young children , 41 percent of adolescents, and 36 percent of adults , eat at fast-food restaurants . On average , they consume 191 calories , 404 calories, and 315 calories, respectively .
“If the average number of calories consumed at each visit was reduced by approximately 60 calories—the average decline we observed in newly introduced menus in our study—the impact on obesity could be significant ,” says Sara N. Bleich , associate professor of health policy and management and lead author of the study .
FAST FOOD AND PUBLIC HEALTH
The lower-calorie menu choices may have been rolled out in anticipation of expected new federal government rules requiring large chain restaurants—including most fast-food places—to post calorie counts on their menus, the researchers say
“Given that the federal menu-labeling provisions outlined in the 2010 Affordable Care Act are not yet in effect , this voluntary action by large chain restaurants to offer lower calorie menu options may indicate a trend toward increased transparency of nutritional information , which could have a significant impact on obesity and the public’s health ,” says Bleich .
Using data from MenuStat , researchers looked at menu options from 66 of the 100 largest US restaurant chains for 2012 and 2013 . The newer , lower-calorie items came from the main course and beverage categories and children’s menus .
For the most part , the restaurants weren’t offering slimmed-down versions of signature dishes like their high-calorie burgers or pizzas . Instead, the lower-calorie items were mostly in different categories , such as salads. Some restaurants did introduce new burgers , but their calorie counts tended to be more in line with the original items .
“You can’t prohibit people from eating fast food , but offering consumers lower calorie options at chain restaurants may help reduce caloric intake without asking the individual to change their behavior—a very difficult thing to do,” Bleich says .
The findings are published online in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine .
The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute supported the work.
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