Ad campaign, calorie postings aim to improve eating habits

At the Burger King on Erie Boulevard in Schenectady, a chart near the beverage station lists the cal

At the Burger King on Erie Boulevard in Schenectady, a chart near the beverage station lists the calories for every item sold. A Whopper sandwich has 670 calories, while a Whopper sandwich with cheese has 760 calories.

But there are healthier options, such as the hamburger, which has 260 calories, and the hamburger with cheese, which has 300 calories.

Schenectady County is one of four in New York that require fast food and chain restaurants with 15 or more locations to post the calories of all the foods they serve. Albany, Ulster and Suffolk counties have similar laws, as does New York City.

The idea is that once diners become aware of how many calories they’re consuming when they eat out, they’ll want to cut back on greasy, sugary and fatty foods. Health officials view calorie posting as a valuable tool in the fight to reduce obesity, diabetes, certain types of cancers and other health risks. They also hope that restaurants will begin to offer healthier options as consumers change their buying patterns.

“The bottom line is the obesity issue,” said Denise Kolankowski, an educator at Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Schenectady County. “That’s what’s driving this.”

In February, the state Department of Health launched an obesity prevention campaign called “I Choose 600.” The program, which will run through June, encourages people to eat meals of 600 calories or less and to check calorie counts when they eat at fast food chains. According to DOH, about one-third of the total calories people consume come from meals bought outside the home.

Most adults can maintain a healthy weight by eating 2,000 or fewer calories a day, the agency said.

New York is actually ahead of the curve when it comes to calorie posting.

In the summer of 2012, calorie posting will expand throughout the country, as part of the federal health reform act. The federal law will require chain restaurants with 20 or more locations to include calorie counts on menus, menu boards and drive-thrus.

Education effort

Schenectady County’s calorie posting law went into effect in September.

In an effort to educate low-income residents about calorie posting, Kolankowski has been meeting with groups such as WIC, a federally-funded health and nutrition program for women, infants and children. One of the first things she explains to people is that the government isn’t telling them they can’t eat certain foods or attempting to police their meals.

“This is about having fast food chains be more responsible about what they’re offering,” Kolankowski said. “We’re saying, ‘Let’s focus on where we’re eating and what we’re eating.’ The restaurants are providing the consumers with the information. The consumer can make whatever they want of it.”

Officials hope that calorie posting laws drive fast food restaurants to revamp their menus to include healthier options.

“Choices need to be a little broader,” Kolankowski said. “Nobody needs a triple cheeseburger.”

Kolankowski said the parents she meets with have a variety of reactions when they learn about the calorie posting law. Many of them are surprised when they learn how many calories are in certain foods. One woman became defensive and suggested that people would judge her when they found out how many calories were in her meals.

Schenectady County has also received a three-year, $325,000 federal grant that aims to get people to reduce their sodium intake.

At a news conference last week announcing the initiative, Glynnis Hunt, the county’s public health education coordinator, said the county hopes to recruit up to 40 restaurants over the next three years to participate in the initiative. The restaurants will be asked to buy and use ingredients low in sodium, to promote sodium awareness on their menus and to increase the availability of vegetables and fruits.

Kolankowski said the sodium initiative shares the same overall goals of the calorie counting program: getting people to eat better and improving the overall health of county residents.

In Albany County, the calorie posting law went into effect in March 2010, and compliance has been good, according to the county. Staff from Cornell Cooperative Extension are meeting with groups to educate people about the law and help them better understand what the numbers on the postings mean.

“From what we’ve heard, people are paying attention to the postings and they’re noticing them, but the context isn’t there,” said Sue Swan, senior public health educator for the county. “They might see that something has 850 calories but not know what that means. That’s where ‘I Choose’ comes in.”

Pushing the message

DOH is using billboards, bus advertisements, radio ads, a Facebook page and displays at mall food courts such as Crossgates Mall to get the “I Choose 600” message across.

The materials target parents; a flier about the program depicts a smiling woman eating a sandwich and states, “My kids count on me to make good choices. And now they count on me to order less at fast food restaurants. Meals under 600 calories keep me energized and feeling great, so I can be there for them. Look at calorie postings before you choose.” The flier also lists tips on how to eat less. These tips include:

* Cut the combo meal — that extra 50 cents or dollar for the combo meal can mean hundreds of extra calories that you don’t need.

* Go back to the basics — order water.

* Just say no to shakes and other high-calorie extras.

* Go “small” or skip the sugary drinks like soda, sweetened teas and juice drinks.

* Don’t double up — order a single burger.

* Limit, or even better, pass on the mayo, cheese and sauces.

* Bye-bye bacon and sausage — they’re just extra calories and fat.

* Go for grilled, not fried.

* Share half with a friend or family member.

* Stay “small” when ordering fries.

The “I Choose 600” campaign is funded by a $1.5 million federal grant.

Measuring response

The state Department of Health plans to measure the success of the campaign by comparing the average number of calories purchased per meal before the campaign to the average number of calories purchased after the campaign by customers who report using the posted calorie information.

“We’re going to see if the campaign is successful,” said Peter Constantakes, a spokesman for DOH. “We like the campaign a lot, and we hope there’s a good response.”

Jacqueline Martinez, senior program director for the New York State Health Foundation, a private, statewide foundation that aims to improve New York’s health care system, said that most people aren’t aware of how many calories they’re consuming when they walk into a fast food restaurant. She said calorie posting in New York City has helped her make more informed choices.

“This morning I walked into a restaurant and I was determined to get a croissant and a coffee,” Martinez said. “But the croissant was 300 calories, and I knew I was going out to dinner that night, and so I got the fruit instead because it only had 91 calories.”

A 2006 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that diners who are given nutrition information on food served in restaurants are 24 percent to 37 percent less likely to choose high-calorie menu items; another study in the same journal, published in 2008, found that New York City fast-food customers who saw calorie information displayed bought 52 percent fewer calories than those who didn’t see the information.

“Americans look at food labels,” Martinez said. “If you give them the information, they will use it.”

According to DOH, one of every four adult New Yorkers is obese, and obesity among children and adolescents has tripled over the past three decades. Since the 1970s, standard portion sizes in fast food and chain restaurants have grown, with the typical soft drink serving increasing by 49 calories, the typical french fry serving increasing by 68 calories and the typical hamburger by 97 calories.

Categories: Schenectady County

Leave a Reply