US Restaurants Not Getting Healthier
October 1, 2013

US Restaurant Menus Not Getting Any Healthier, Says Study

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Local and national public health campaigns have been focused on getting Americans to eat healthier over the past several years and many restaurants have begun touting health-minded changes to their menus in response.

However, a new study published Tuesday in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that the calorie counts and sodium levels of main entrées offered by American chain restaurants remained the same from 2010 to 2011.

“Restaurant menus did not get any healthier over time,” said Helen Wu, a population health analyst in the University of California, Davis Health System.

The study looked at the changes made to over 26,000 regular menu entrées over the span of a year by more than 210 major American chain restaurants. Researchers monitored restaurant websites for nutrition information between the spring of 2010 and the spring of 2011. According to the study team, restaurants made no significant nutritional changes overall to their menus. The average main course contained 670 calories in both 2010 and 2011. Sodium levels only dropped an average of 15 milligrams over the course of the study.

“Across the restaurant industry, we see a pattern of one step forward, one step back,” Wu said. “Restaurants make changes to their menus regularly, but they may make both healthy and unhealthy changes simultaneously. This study provides objective evidence that overall, we did not see a new wave of healthier entrées come in to replace less healthy ones.”

Any changes the restaurants did make were done against the backdrop of both internal and external pressures to boost healthier offerings. For example, a federal menu-labeling mandate was passed as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. It should be noted that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not issued final regulations on posting calorie information on menus as mandated by the ACA. Some restaurants are doing so voluntarily, however.

“Consumers need to be aware that when they step into a restaurant, they are playing a high-stakes game with their health by making dietary choices from menus that are loaded with high-calorie, high-sodium options,” Wu said. “This is a game that health-conscious consumers have a very low chance of winning, given the set of menu offerings available in U.S. chain restaurants today.”

The researchers admitted that more change might be seen with a longer-term study, and after the FDA issues its final regulations on menu labeling.

“The implementation of a national menu labeling law could be an important strategy to accelerate progress on menu nutrition in restaurants by encouraging more substantial menu nutrition changes,” Wu said.

"Maybe some more encouragement is needed, as in the Choose Health LA Restaurants program that the Department of Public Health started in September,” said co-author Roland Sturm, a senior economist at the RAND Corp. “Restaurants participating can post a large decal in their window if they offer smaller portion sizes and healthier children's meals with less fried food and more fruits and vegetables.”