WASHINGTON – A new report suggests restaurants should dish food and fight fat at the same time, meaning menus with more fruits and vegetables, smaller portions and better nutritional information.
With burgers, fries and pizza the Top 3 eating-out favorites in this country, restaurants are in prime position to help improve people's diets and combat obesity. At least that's what is recommended in a government-commissioned report being released Friday.
The report, requested and funded by the Food and Drug Administration, lays out ways to help people manage their intake of calories from the growing number of meals prepared away from home, including at the nation's nearly 900,000 restaurants and other establishments that serve food.
The 136-page report prepared by The Keystone Center, an education and public group based in Keystone, Colo., said Americans now consume fully one-third of their daily intake of calories outside the home. And 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.
Today, 64 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.
Consumer advocates increasingly have heaped some of the blame on restaurant chains like McDonald's, which bristles at the criticism while offering more salads and fruit. The report does not explicitly link dining out with the rising tide of obesity, but does cite numerous studies that suggest there is a connection.
The report 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 reduce the overall number of calories taken in by diners.
Bundling meals with more fruits and vegetables also could improve nutrition. And letting consumers know how many calories are contained in a meal also could guide the choices they make, according to the report. 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 Wootan, adding that Congress should give the FDA the authority to require such disclosure.
But the report notes that the laboratory work needed 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.
That cost makes it unfeasible 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, Cohn said. Still, they can't make people eat what they won't order.
"It's not really the responsibility of restaurants to restrict the foods that they offer," Cohn said.
Survey data suggest that consumers are sticking to old standbys, even when offered healthier fare.
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.
Government officials, scholars, industry representatives and consumer advocates contributed to the report.