Calorie Counts on Fast-Food Menus Don't Influence Kid's Choices

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Such as? All manner of educational, behavioral encouragement and public policy changes could be adopted but Kersh believes that providing an "anchor number" to give the calorie counts of menu items some context would be an inexpensive yet major improvement.

For example, the national menu labels that go into effect under the ACA will also include a statement reminding consumers that a healthy adult should eat around 2,000 calories a day. "All of a sudden you have a frame of reference for that 800-calorie meal you're about to order. If that anchor number isn't there, the menu calorie counts are just numbers," Kersh says.

He points to behavioral economics studies where having a free-floating number became a license to gorge. In other words, having the individual calorie counts without an anchor number may actually drive people to eat more calorific meals than if they had no information at all.

Other Countries Do Better

Another far more controversial step recommended by some experts is the much-talked-about "Twinkie" or "soda" tax where foods high in calories, fat and sugar and low in nutrition would be taxed much the same as cigarettes and liquor. But in order for a move such as that to be effective, Kersh suspects, it would have to gouge consumer pockets in a deep and meaningful way so those foods ceased to be attractive options.

"It would need to be proportionate to what you are consuming, like a penny per ounce, which would certainly add up on a liter bottle of soda," Kersh says.

Other countries have been more successful than the United States in driving down rising childhood obesity rates. France, for example, has taken entire school districts and hit them with a dozen or more interventions at once, including banning TV advertisements for fast food and junk food, limiting the number of fast-food joints near schools and cleaning up the nutritional choices of school lunches and vending machines.

Considering that the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale has observed that the average U.S. child views one McDonald's ad on television every day and one Burger King ad every two days, both companies continue to increase their budgets for advertising to children, and their sites are among the most visited by children on the Internet, these seem like sensible moves.

Japan -- a country where an obesity crisis was once unimaginable -- has also seen some reduction in childhood obesity rates but with an entirely different tactic. Every school-age child has his or her Body Mass Index (BMI) measured and those who fall into the unhealthy range are sent home with a stern note of warning to their parents. I suspect this sort of shaming move would not go over well in the United States.

Solutions to the ballooning waistlines of our children must be culturally sensitive but we can no longer throw up our hands and say it's impossible to make a difference. Some chalk it up to personal responsibility and say we should simply educate consumers the best we can so they will make better choices. But the allure of fast food is powerful. It's engineered to taste wonderful.

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