One fast-food chain in the state of Washington recently announced that-for an entire year-it had been posting inside its menus the nutrition facts about its meals. And yet its customers never seemed to blink an eye-hardly anyone changed their eating habits significantly. Are we Americans just not interested in what we're eating?
Researchers at the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department in Tacoma, Washington, decided to test whether this assumption about restaurant diners was true: are customers neither interested in nor influenced by the nutrition information restaurants list in their menus?
Sit-down vs. Fast-food Restaurants
The researchers at first hypothesized that the consumers in sit-down restaurants were more likely to pay attention to information on the menu about nutrients than were the patrons of fast-food establishments. At a sit-down restaurant, the scientists reasoned, diners are often less hurried, and therefore would be more likely to examine the nutrition specs in the menu.
They further reasoned that, in contrast to this sit-down group, the fast-food people:
are often pressed for time
know what foods they're going to order even before they walk in
aren't expecting to be dining in some nutritional utopia
But no! The study showed that neither of these groups changed their eating habits much in eateries that listed nutrition info in their menus. This was true both for the people eating at sit-down restaurants and for the denizens of fast-food places.
The researchers now theorize that most of the people who already are eating healthy diets might have been excluded from their study because these diners:
are by now well aware of which menu options are healthier overall and lowest in calories
typically don't eat in fast-food restaurants
So, do we Americans, on average, already know what's in the foods and beverages we consume? If so, readers, what do you look for in food labels and menus? And what do you consider "deal-breakers" in terms of calories, fat, sodium, and so on?
Making Sense of Menus and Food Labels
Here are some tips for deciphering all the food choices confronting us daily, and for spotting "deal-breakers," whether you're at a greasy squat-and-gobble or a 4-star restaurant.
If you're watching your weight, which many of us are doing these days, a range of 300 calories to 600 calories per meal is probably appropriate. If possible, avoid drinking calorie-laden beverages, especially some of those smoothies, which are super sugary.
A range of 30 grams (g) to 45 g of carbohydrate per meal might make sense, but steer clear of any ingredients listed as "simple carbohydrates," which can indicate refined sugar.
These are listed on a food label in the "carbohydrates" section. Even milk and fruits, for example, contain simple sugars (lactose and fructose, respectively). Try to keep in mind that, overall, every 4 g of sugar listed on a label is equivalent to 1 teaspoon, or a packet, of refined sugar. So, next time you're about to order a latte containing 40 grams of sugars, now you'll at least know that that yummy drink contains about 10 packets of sugar -ouch! Around 15 g of sugars or less per meal/snack is the general rule.
A normal, healthy adult's recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein is 50 g per day, but many studies have shown that a lot of Americans eat more protein than they need. Around 20 g of protein per meal is sufficient for most, so eating any more than 50 g in a day means that you're taking in extra calories. And for some people, such as those with kidney issues, more than 50 g a day can be downright harmful.
Many Americans typically consume a diet that's too high in fat, particularly the saturated and trans fats that contribute to heart disease. While everyone on the planet needs some fat for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and the proper functioning of certain hormones, most people don't need more than 40 g to 50 g of fat per day. Therefore, more than 10-15 g of fat per meal could be a deal-breaker. On a list of ingredients, 5 g of fat is equivalent to 1 teaspoon of fat, or a pat of butter. A snack containing more than 5 g of fat is probably not a wonderful idea.
A teaspoon of salt contains about 2,000 milligrams (mg) of sodium, more than enough for most healthy adults during a day. Of course, many people consume far more than this, but more than 600 mg of sodium per meal is not ideal, and many healthcare professionals recommend less.