Nov. 5, 2003 -- Cheese fries: 3,010 calories. Bloomin' Onion: 2,130 calories. Buffalo wings: 1,750 calories. If you knew the numbers, would you still eat it?
New legislation introduced today in Congress -- called the Menu Education and Labeling (MEAL) bill -- would require many restaurants and fast food chains, including Starbucks, Taco Bell, and Burger King, to list calorie counts on menu boards.
The law would also require table-service chains (with more than 20 locations) -- such as TGI Friday's, IHOP, Red Lobster, and Pizza Hut -- to list calories, saturated fat plus trans fat, carbohydrates, and sodium on printed menus.
From Applebee's to Wendy's, fast food restaurants could be wrangled in to the movement to slim down America.
"No one would mistake cheese fries with ranch dressing for a health food, but few would guess that a typical serving uses up more than a whole day's worth of calories," says a new report from the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
In fact, two-thirds of Americans say they want that information, according to a recent CSPI survey.
20 Zillion Fat Grams Served
Americans get about one-third of their calories from outside the home, the CSPI reports. They're also eating out twice as often as they did in 1970. Restaurant foods are an important contributor to rising rates of overweight and obesity.
Since 1986, some fast food chains such as McDonald's have provided nutrition information. In 1990, when legislation required manufacturers of packaged foods to list nutrition information, the restaurant industry won a special exemption, says the CSPI.
"Most of the chain restaurants don't provide nutrition information, and those that do make it hard to find, hard to read, or available only on web sites," says Margo G. Wootan, CSPI's nutrition policy director, in a prepared statement. "People have good nutrition information in supermarkets, but people can only guess what they're eating at chain restaurants."
Studies have shown that when people eat at fast food restaurants, they consume more calories and saturated fat, fewer nutrients such as calcium, and less fiber when they eat out. Children eat almost twice as many calories in an average restaurant meal than in a home-cooked meal.
Many of these meals, appetizers, snacks, and drinks provide a full day's worth of calories -- and in some cases even more.
Children between 2 and 6 years old, women, and some older adults should get about 1,600 calories a day, according to the American Dietetic Association and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Older children, teen girls, and most men should get about 2,200 calories. Teen boys and active men should get about 2,800 calories,
Some menu items have more calories and fat than anyone would imagine, says Wootan. "Who would guess that a drink can pack the calories of a whole meal? A large shake at McDonald's has over a thousand calories, 35% more than a hamburger, small fries, plus small Coke."
Other staggering calorie counts from the CSPI:
- Large caffe mocha with whole milk: 430 calories
- Large caffe latte with skim milk: 170 calories
- Three slices pepperoni pizza: 900 calories
- Five breadsticks: 800 calories
- Mushroom cheeseburger: 1,490 calories
- Hamburger and onion rings: 1,550 calories
- Fries: 600 calories
- Chicken fingers: 1,640 calories
- Stuffed potato skins: 1,260 calories
- Movie theater popcorn, medium size, without butter: 900 calories
- Cinnabon Classic: 670 calories
"If chain restaurants can provide nutrition information on web sites, they can put calorie numbers on their menus," Wootan says. "For nutrition information to be useful, it needs to be at the point of decision making. Few fast-food consumers want to lose their place in line to squint at a hard-to-read poster."
Over the last eight months, six states -- California, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas -- and the District of Columbia have introduced bills to require nutrition information in fast food chain restaurants.
Experts Weigh In
Nutritionists, of course, love this legislation -- but it may need some editing, says Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
"Too much information can be a little overwhelming for people," Bonci tells WebMD. "You need to give them options, teach them how to make better decisions. Give them 'Door Number One,' 'Door Number Two,' and 'Door Number Three' -- and the facts to back it up. Order that burger but get a smaller drink. Those are things people don't think of."
"If people saw how many calories were in that portion of fettuccine, or in the endless bowls of pasta, they may think twice," says Chris Rosenbloom, PhD, RD, associate dean of the College of Health and Human Sciences and professor of nutrition at Georgia State University in Atlanta.
"I think people are either clueless about calories or in denial," she tells WebMD.
Her suggestion: A little kiosk in the restaurant could "house" the nutrition information, rather than having it on the menu, says Rosenbloom. "There are many ways to make it available. People who don't want to know wouldn't have to go to the kiosk."
If you're still not convinced, consider how much time the CSPI says it takes for an average-size woman to work off those fast foods:
- Quarter-Pounder with Cheese Extra Value Meal (1,550 calories) = running more than two hours
- Cheese fries with ranch dressing (3,010 calories) = nearly 11 hours of brisk walking
- A 20-ounce Coke = nearly an hour of biking
Still hungry for fast food?