You Are What You Eat



Harris Magazine’s Laine Zizka interviewed Dr. Meena Shah, professor and chair of the Department of Kinesiology, to talk about her recent research on menu labeling and the effect it has on American calorie consumption.

LZ: What inspired you to pursue this particular research?
 Eating away from home is very popular among Americans. About four out of five Americans eat out at least once a week and one out of two eat out at least three times per week. Eating out is associated with higher calorie consumption and weight gain. Calorie labels on menus have been proposed as a strategy to improve food choices in restaurants. Based on the 2010 Affordable Care Act, any restaurant with 20 or more outlets is required to display calorie information on menu boards and show a statement on suggested daily caloric intake, effective May 7, 2018. Numerous studies have evaluated the effect of calorie labels on menus and have found that they are not effective in reducing the number of calories ordered. This may be because people may have a hard time relating to the calorie content of foods and how it relates to their total daily needs. These issues inspired two graduate students, Ashlei James and Brooke Bouza, and I to develop and evaluate a more innovative method to reduce the number of calories ordered or consumed from menus.

LZ: Tell me a bit about your research and presentation?
Ashlei James evaluated the effects of exercise labels (how much brisk walking is needed to burn the food calories), calorie labels, and no labels on menus on calories ordered and consumed in young mostly non-Hispanic white college students. The results showed that the exercise labels menu was effective in reducing the number of calories ordered and consumed compared to the no labels menu but the calorie labels menu was not effective. The subjects in the exercise labels menu also ordered fewer calories from fat compared to the no labels menu. These findings were very exciting and generated a lot of publicity. The results, however, may not be generalizable to other populations. Brook Bouza addressed this concern by conducting a similar study among Hispanics. Neither the exercise labels menu nor the calorie labels menu were effective in reducing the number of calories ordered among Hispanic subjects. The difference in the results between the two groups may partly due to the fact that the Hispanic subjects were older, less well educated, more likely to be overweight, and less likely to exercise compared to the young mostly non-Hispanic white college students.

LZ: What advice would you give to an average person?
Women typically need 2,000 calories and men need about 2,400 calories per day. Calorie intake should be limited to approximately 600 calories per meal or 1800 calories for three meals. The remaining allowance can be in the form of snacks.

LZ: How can health care systems and professionals adapt to improve patient literacy and adherence?
Health care professionals can help to educate their patients regarding their total calorie needs and how many calories would be appropriate per meal and for snacks.

LZ: If your research changes one thing, what do you hope it will be?
We need to conduct more studies on the effect of exercise labels on calories ordered and consumed in a diverse population. Menu label legislation is in its infancy and needs to be modified to include labels that are more easily understood by the general public.