The King County Board of Health made history last week, and it is a change you’ll soon see when dining out. We passed legislation, after extensive negotiation with the Washington Restaurant Association, which requires chain restaurants to provide consumers with nutrition information.
What was the problem?
Obesity has become one of the greatest health challenges in the United States. An overweight or obese person has increased risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.
Washington state obesity rates more than doubled between 1990 and 2004, and have tripled in children and teens since 1980. More than half of the adults in King County – 719,000 people – are overweight or obese, along with 25 percent of youth in middle and high school and 14 percent of preschool children.
As a result of the increase in obesity, the number of people with diabetes in the county has doubled in the past 10 years. The financial costs of obesity are staggering. In the state alone, obesity-related medical expenditures came at the cost of $1.3 billion between 1998 and 2001.
What do restaurants
have to do with obesity?
On average, Americans now eat four meals a week at restaurants (nearly double the number from 20 years ago), consume up to 42 percent of their daily calories and spend 46 percent of their food budget away from home.
Research shows that eating in restaurants is linked with increased obesity because consumers eat more when served larger portions. They also routinely underestimate the nutrition content of menu items. When eating out, it is not uncommon for a single menu item to contain half or even 100 percent of an entire day’s worth of calories.
What is a solution
to the problem?
Nutritional labeling will enable consumers to make informed choices when eating in restaurants. Additionally, nutritional labeling would allow consumers to better manage weight and medical conditions such as diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
To implement this strategy, the King County Board of Health passed legislation that will provide consumers with information about the nutrition content of their food. All chain restaurants with more than 15 locations nationwide must post calorie, fat, carbohydrate and sodium information either on their menu, as an appendix, or in an insert, supplemental menu or electronic device at the table.
Why do we think it will work?
Six national polls found that Americans overwhelmingly support requiring restaurants to list nutrition information. This is because three-quarters of Americans report using food labels on packaged foods purchased at the grocery store, and about half of them report that the labels caused them to change their food purchasing habits.
In order for restaurant nutrition labeling to have a similar result, the King County Board of Health maintained the following: first, information must be available to all restaurant goers without having to ask for it; and second, information be available prior to ordering, so restaurant goers can make informed choices.
Obesity is an immense and complicated issue nationwide. I do not expect that the Board of Health’s legislation will be the sole solution to the problem. But it is one tool to help consumers make better informed choices about what they eat in restaurants.
Julia Patterson of SeaTac is chair of the King County Board of Health and the King County Council.