Rep. Rosa DeLauro (search), D-Conn., introduced a bill this week that would require fast-food and chain restaurants to display nutrition information for food choices on their menus.

But experience with food labeling and a new study suggest the bill’s rationale may be based more on wishful thinking than fact.

“Obesity is one of our nation’s most pressing health issues,” DeLauro says. “This bill … will give consumers the necessary nutritional information to make healthy choices for themselves.”

Rep. DeLauro claims that Americans spend 46 percent of food dollars in restaurants, compared to 26 percent in 1970. “And studies have shown that children eat almost twice as many calories when they eat in a restaurant as they do when they eat at home,” she told Reuters.

Rep. DeLauro’s bill may sound reasonable -- who would argue that consumers shouldn’t be informed about what they’re eating?

The problem, though, is that mere disclosure of nutrition information on menus won’t necessarily make us thinner or healthier.

First, the food labeling that’s been done to date apparently hasn’t helped reduce our waistlines.

Obesity rates have “skyrocketed” over the last 30 years, according to the waistline police. But that’s the same timeframe during which nutritional labeling of packaged foods became standard practice.

If mere information were an effective means of weight control, it’s no wonder that the labeling of packaged foods has failed ­-- the information presented is of dubious relevance to most of us.

Current nutrition label information is qualified by fine print that reads, “Values are based on a 2,000-calorie diet” -- implying that 2,000 calories is the universal daily nutritional requirement.

But the Food and Drug Administration (search) picked the 2,000-calorie standard because it approximates the nutritional requirements for postmenopausal women. The vast majority of us, however, aren’t postmenopausal women.

Individuals most likely require more or fewer calories -- the nutrition labels, however, provide no useful guidance. They don’t even disclose that the 2,000-calorie standard is intended for postmenopausal women.

Next, the recommended daily percentage requirements for fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate and protein are arbitrary in nature. They have not been scientifically determined to be what’s best for any one person or class of persons, much less everyone.

Supporters of menu labeling no doubt hope that we’ll eat less if we know how many calories are in restaurant food.

The folly of this hope is laid bare by a new study published by researchers from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine this week in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine.

“While physical activity and [body weight] have frequently been associated with cardiovascular disease [CVD] risk in the general population, the link of caloric intake to CVD is less certain,” is the study’s first sentence.

Though animal experiments have suggested that reduced caloric intake might extend life and some small, short-term studies in humans have suggested that caloric restriction is associated with reduced CVD risk, large studies of human populations have reported that calorie intake isn’t associated with CVD risk, according to the researchers.

Adding to the uncertainty, say the researchers, “no previous study has addressed the impact of caloric intake, physical activity and bodyweight [all three considered together] on CVD risk.”

The researchers analyzed data from almost 9,800 subjects aged 25 to 74. During 17 years of follow-up, there were 1,531 deaths due to CVD.

Low physical activity and obesity were each independently associated with increased CVD risk, but “caloric intake was not related to CVD mortality,” they concluded.

“Because of the reasonable assumption that increased caloric intake should lead to obesity and its consequences, dietary restriction has been a standard public health recommendation … [However], it would appear that caloric intake might not be a primary determinant of CVD outcome. The fact is that those who exercised more and ate more nevertheless had low CVD mortality. Thus, energy expenditure may be the key,” added the researchers.

Rep. DeLauro, are you reading this?

“Therefore, eating less may not necessarily equate with leanness, nor does eating more necessarily translate into obesity … Thus, perhaps the greatest practical value of this study is the finding here that a focus on increasing energy expenditure, rather than reducing caloric intake, may offer the most productive behavioral strategy by which to extend healthy life,” the researchers summed up.

Nutrition labeling of restaurant fare likely would only be a feel-good exercise. But if the goal is becoming physically healthier, we should probably get some real exercise.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

Respond to the Writer