A Big Mac, a large Coke and large fries has 1,360 calories — more than three times the recommended calorie allowance for a meal.

A Big Mac, a large Coke and large fries has 1,360 calories — more than three times the recommended calorie allowance for a meal.

Public health officials hope seeing calorie counts like these on restaurant menus and vending machines will lead consumers to make healthier food choices and help reduce obesity in America. But as Americans increasingly opt for meals outside the home, the battle’s quickly becoming uphill.

“I don’t think obesity is just a local problem,” said YMCA Director Ben Coffey. “Many factors go in to play when looking at statistics. Natural resources, income levels, access to health care, access to physical activity type programs, access to healthy foods.

“Usually obesity tends to go up when some of those elements are missing. This problem hasn’t happened overnight and won’t be fixed overnight. This is a fairly new problem when talking big picture. People need to become educated as to how obesity affects their lives. Fear is the greatest commodity. Look at smoking and seat belts. How were we sold on those two items. By fear of losing our life or getting a ticket. Once people understand that obesity can lead to risk factors that can shorten our lives then perhaps this will change decision making.”

‘Healthy’ options

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 requires restaurants with 20 or more locations to post calorie counts on menus. According to the Food and Drug Administration, 280,000 of the United State’s 600,000 restaurants will be subject to the new regulations.

In September, McDonald’s was one of the first large fast food chains to roll out the new menus.

Starting in 2013, the American Beverage Association is launching its Calories Count program with Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, where calorie information will be posted on vending machines. The program is first rolling out in a few cities, then going nation-wide.

Whether the up-front information will lead to healthier choices is still up for debate.

“As a family we have cut our consumption of sugary drinks, mainly carbonated types,” said Richard Jones of El Dorado. “They have become more of a treat item instead of a regular grocery list item that we always keep on hand. Labeling may influence some people not to buy as often, but in the end another label acts like an advertisement anyway and people may just switch to another product and consume more of it.

“I mean that information is already on the cans and bottles and if you don’t read one label on a pack of 24 cans or on the side of a 2-liter bottle then how often will you read a sticker on a machine? Unless they decide to turn the can/bottle around in the photo on the machine it is likely a sticker won’t stand out very much. Besides, the beverage companies market 24-packs as family-packs anyway and are just betting both sides of the same coin.”

“Non-carbonated drinks has as much sugar/corn syrup as carbonated,” said Flip Monier of Leon. “The amount in which one consumes need to be taken in to consideration. As well as their life style. An active person burns it, where as a couch potato collects it. I agree people should be informed, but obesity should not be blamed on the companies that make the products because everyone in this country has a right to chose what they want to do.”

Coffey felt such information could be a benefit.

“I think it could help consumers make educated choices,” he said. “Foods have a very strong emotional attachment to some people and many times it will accelerate the decision even if someone knows if the food is a poor choice. However if restaurants choose to do this to help educate the consumer then consumers might be tempted to make better food decisions to become healthier.

“In a book I am reading I came across a recent statistic. In 1999 subway launched their seven subs under 6 grams of fat campaign they had a whole marketing blitz to help educate consumers but they were on the forefront of promoting calories on their menu’s they had an 18 percent increase in sales the following year then another 16 percent increase in sale the year after,” Coffey continued. “I think a lot of time restaurants shy away from posting calories because they may become to transparent and lose a customer base, but people really do want to eat healthy, and they will pay for it as well.”

As for the local schools, they have already made changes to their vending machines.

“Several years ago we had to revamp all of the vending machines to comply with the new requirements,” said Superintendent Sue Givens.

They offer different beverages in their machines. They also are turned off during school hours and located in only one spot in the school.

“It was a big change for the vending companies and a big loss in revenue for schools,” Givens said.

 The percentage of calories Americans consume away from home has almost doubled since the late 1970s, according to the USDA Economic Research Service — and it’s affecting health and waist lines.

A study from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute published in 2004 indicated young adults who eat frequently at fast food restaurants gain more weight and have a greater increase in insulin resistance in early middle age.

Insulin resistance is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes, and diabetes is a major risk factor for heart disease.

Expanding awareness, waistlines

As Americans’ eating out habits have increased, so has the nation’s obesity rate.

The percentage of children in the United States who were obese increased from 7 percent in 1980 to almost 20 percent in 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Adolescents saw a similar increase.

More than one-third of U.S. adults are obese, resulting in about $147 billion in health care costs in 2008, according to the CDC.

Jim White, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said calorie awareness is important for addressing overeating in America.

“I don’t think it is going to harm anything,” he said of posting calorie counts on menus. “I think some people are going to be alarmed at the calories in some common restaurant items. A common restaurant meal can be 800 to 1,000 calories. I recommend a lot women have a 400 calorie per meal plan. They are getting 75 percent of their calories for a normal day in one meal.”

Whether the calorie shock will truly dissuade consumers from ordering high-calorie, high-fat foods remains to be seen.

Two major university studies have shown conflicting results of posting calories counts on menus.

A Stanford study of Starbucks consumers showed a 6 percent decrease in calorie consumption when food calorie counts were posted on menus.

A New York University research study had different results.

NYU researchers found about 28 percent of New York City customers who saw calorie labeling indicated the information influenced their choices. However, the participants’ receipts showed they purchased about the same amount of calories before the labeling went into effect and the same amount as consumers where labeling was not required.

Teetering on the edge of health

Despite the calorie postings, some consumers will continue to opt for high-calorie, high-fat choices, with convenience and cost being large factors in those decisions, White said.

White noted many of the items on fast food dollar menus are the higher calorie foods, which may make it more difficult for consumers with fewer economic resources to make healthy choices.

“I think there are definitely certain people who will not opt for a healthy lifestyle, regardless,” he said, “but I think there is a certain population that is teetering and might choose a healthier lifestyle if they had the information. It is that middle population we are looking at.”

White said creating calories awareness at restaurants may lead to healthier eating at home.

“If you can eat healthy at a fast food restaurant, you can eat healthy anywhere,” White said. “If you can face great tasting things like cheeses and butter and tasty fried foods, you’ve dodged a bullet.”

Additional reporting by Julie Clements