Menu labels having no effect? Evidence from Taco Time

Being a pioneer in adding calorie and nutrition labels to menus at fast-food restaurants has made King County a good place for researchers to visit.

A team based at Duke-National University of Singapore has been watching consumers at Taco Time restaurants, both in King County and in other counties, and found that adding all that info to the menus appeared to have no impact on people’s choices.  He published his results today (January 14, 2011) in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

As Shari Roan writes in the Los Angeles Times:

Thirteen months after the law went into effect, food purchases at the Taco Time restaurants in King County were identical to those at Taco Time restaurants where menu boards did not list nutritional information.

“Given the results of prior studies, we had expected the results to be small, but we were surprised that we could not detect even the slightest hint of changes in purchasing behavior as a result of the legislation,” the lead author of the study, Eric Finkelstein, of Duke-National University of Singapore Graduate Medical School, said in a news release. “The results suggest that mandatory menu labeling, unless combined with other interventions, may be unlikely to significantly influence the obesity epidemic.”

This will not be the last word on menu labeling.  The labels are coming soon to restaurants across the nation, Continue reading

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Michelle Obama’s “Obesity Task Force” – watch the details

We’ll find out on Tuesday what the White House thinks we can achieve, regarding childhood obesity.   I just got this announcement:

Tuesday, May 11th First Lady Michelle Obama and Domestic Policy Council Director Melody Barnes will unveil the findings of the Childhood Obesity Task Force report, the result of the 90-day review that the President ordered around the launch of the Let’s Move! initiative in February.

Several of the Cabinet members and administration officials who are part of the task force will also attend this press briefing and be available to the media afterwards: Office of Health Reform Director Nancy-Ann DeParle, Secretaries Donovan, Duncan, Sebelius, SBA Administrator Mills, and FTC Chairman Leibowitz.

If the findings emphasize physical activity without making major recommendations about diet, then you can call it a victory for the food and beverage companies.  But, I expect they’ll have a little of everything.  From what I’ve learned lately, I wonder …

  • Will it discuss ways to teach young families how to cook, especially using ingredients they’ve never tried?
  • Will it suggest ways to make sure produce is affordable?
  • Will it suggest a major tax on sugary beverages?
  • Will it tackle the issue of food labeling and food marketing (health claims on packages and advertising to children)?
  • Will it promote further study of the effects on obesity of hormone-mimicking chemicals on pregnant mothers and newborns?

Promoting physical activity is a good idea, too, for a lot of health reasons separate from weight-loss.  Mostly, I wonder if the report will spur any new action, beyond what’s already been attempted over the past decade.

(If you missed my story on why cooking classes might be important, here’s the link to KPLU.

Why eating in America may be less healthy than in Mexico

Another angle on obesity.  I just got back from interviewing Marian Neuhouser, a nutritional scientist at the Fred Hutchinson center.  She’s launching a new study of Mexican-American women.  She says more than 76% of Hispanic women in the U.S. are overweight or obese (the overall rate for women in the U.S. is 64%).  The experience of Mexican immigrants is similar to Japanese immigrants – within one generation in this country, the rates of obesity skyrocket.  That’s why many scientists say there’s something about living in modern America that is “obesogenic” – causing people to become obese.  The most likely and most important factor: diet.

Neuhouser’s hypothesis is that the switch in diet is a trigger, going from typical rural Mexican meals dominated by beans, rice and fresh-made tortillas, to a more American diet that’s full of processed foods, white flour, fatty meats, and sugary drinks.  But, she also suspects the problem for Mexican immigrants is exacerbated by their genetic profile and how it reacts to the American foods.

She just received funding to study this in detail, by getting 50 Seattle-area Mexican women to eat their meals at the Hutch for a month, so she can control their diet, while monitoring their blood for a number of biomarkers.

The biomarkers might also help explain why Hispanic women tend to get a more virulent, hard-to-treat form of breast cancer.

Whose truth about childhood obesity?

It’s no secret Americans have been getting fatter — and the future’s not so bright when children are getting fatter, at younger ages.  I’m looking into why, and what should be done.

A lot of solutions have been proposed.  Some are promoted by trusted sources.  But they may miss the mark, even if they’re good ideas for overall health.

  • Couch potatoes and too much TV?  This may seem like common sense, but there’s pretty decent data that “sedentary behavior” has not changed over the past 30 years.  So, promoting exercise and walkable communities — while good for overall health — may do very little to slow the rise of obesity rates.
  • Poverty?  There’s a lot of data showing that the more poor you are, the more likely you are to be overweight.  But why?  Adam Drewnowski at the University of Washington says it’s because of simple food economics.  It’s cheaper to buy a filling meal that’s unhealthy than it is to buy a healthy one.  Think dollar meals and junk food.  Sodas.  They’re full of calories, but low in nutritional value.  That’s his argument.  But, is that what’s really happening?
  • Too much food?  Many nutritionists argue it’s all about calories and consumption.  We’re eating on average more calories per day than we did 50 years ago.  Their story says, in the 1980’s some agricultural policies changed and food got really cheap.  Now, the temptation to eat is everywhere, all the time.  And, since the ingredients are cheap, portions got bigger.
  • Processed vs. whole foods? This is related to the ideas above.  And this has become a trendy way to frame the problem.  If we could only get more people, and especially poor people, to have “healthier food choices,” they would choose the delicious fruits and vegetables and whole grains.  Then, they’d lose weight.  I haven’t seen any good scientific evidence that demonstrates this, but it’s seen a logical conclusion to draw from other research about nutrition.

I’m still exploring these questions. If you know of scientific studies that support/undermine any of these arguments, please share them.   If there’s a better theory missing from this list, share that, too.