- The Washington Times - Friday, June 2, 2006

The federal government wants smaller portion sizes at restaurants and nutritional information listed on menus.

As Americans eat more food away from home, the Food and Drug Administration said yesterday the nation’s 900,000 restaurants needed to take the lead in cutting fat and the agency laid out ways to help people manage their intake of calories.

“We must take a serious look at the impact these foods are having on our waistlines,” said Penelope Slade Royall, director of the health promotion office at the Department of Health and Human Services.

The 136-page report prepared by the Keystone Center, a nonprofit education and public group based in Keystone, Colo., said Americans now consume one-third of their daily intake of calories outside the home. As of 2000, the average American took in 300 more calories a day than was the case 15 years earlier, according to Agriculture Department statistics cited in the report.

Sixty-four percent of Americans are overweight, including the 30 percent who are obese, according to the report. It pegs the annual medical cost of the problem at nearly $93 billion.

The report does not explicitly link dining out with the rise in obesity, but does cite numerous studies that suggest there is a connection.

It encourages restaurants to shift the emphasis of their marketing to lower-calorie choices, and include more such options on menus. In addition, restaurants could jigger portion sizes and the variety of foods available in mixed dishes to cut calories.

Bundling meals with more fruits and vegetables also could help. And letting consumers know how many calories are contained in a meal also could guide the choices they make, according to the report.

The FDA does not have the legal authority to force the changes, so the report provides only guidelines.

Legislation to require menu labeling was defeated in Congress last year. Similar bills are being considered in the District of Columbia and New York state.

The National Restaurant Association said the report, which it helped prepare but does not support, unfairly targets the industry.

The laboratory work necessary to calculate the calorie content of a menu item can cost $100, or anywhere from $11,500 to $46,000 to analyze an entire menu, the report said.

That cost makes it prohibitive for restaurants, especially when menus can change daily, said Sheila Cohn, director of nutrition policy for the National Restaurant Association.

Instead, restaurants increasingly are offering varied portion sizes, foods made with whole grains, more diet drinks and entree salads to fit the dietary needs of customers, she said.

Still, they can’t make people eat what they won’t order, she added.

Just over half of the nation’s 287 largest restaurant chains now make at least some nutrition information available, said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

“If companies don’t tell them, people have no way of knowing how many calories they are being served at restaurants. And chances are, they are being served a lot more than they realize,” said Ms. Wootan, adding that Congress should give the FDA the authority to require such disclosure.

Carol Joynt, owner of Nathans Restaurant in Georgetown, called the study a “great thing.”

“As long as I’ve owned Nathans, I’ve always cared [about preventing obesity],” Mrs. Joynt said. “First of all, we know obesity is a no-no but from a restaurant-management point of view, you put too much food on the plate and most of it winds up being wasted.”

While she thinks nutritional content could be helpful, Mrs. Joynt said customers don’t always necessarily want that much information.

“You only have so much space in a menu. Do you want to hand a person a 25-page book?” she said.

Nathans used to include the alcohol content on its wine list, but customers complained that it was too cluttered, she added.

“I don’t know that’s what the public goes out and pays for,” Mrs. Joynt said. “When you’re going out to dinner and spending $100, do you really want the headmistress wagging her finger at you? I don’t think obesity happens at restaurants — I think it happens at the meals in between.”

Simeon Holston, 33, called more disclosure an excellent idea as he lunched on a sausage-and-pepperoni pizza at a downtown Washington food court.

“OK, I am going to eat junk food regardless, but let me eat the junk food that’s going to cause me less damage,” said Mr. Holston, an accountant. “A lot of times, presented with information, you will make a better choice.”

When Americans dined out in 2005, the leading menu choices remained hamburgers, french fries and pizza, according to the NPD Group, a market research firm. The presumably healthier option of a side salad was the No. 4 choice for women, but No. 5 for men, according to the eating pattern study.

Staff writer Kara Rowland contributed to this report.

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