It’s no secret that older Americans’ waistlines are expanding. From 2004 to 2013, the proportion of adults ages 50 and older who were obese increased 21 percent, from 25 to 31 percent of the population*. Associated with chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes, rising levels of obesity are taking a toll on individual health and quality of life, as well as health care costs. Among all age groups, obesity accounts for approximately 21 percent of all health spending.
One contributor to this trend may be Americans’ dining habits. Eating-out rates among adults ages 65-plus increased dramatically between 2008 and 2012. Because obesity is typically caused by consuming too many calories, some experts have suggested that making calorie and nutrition labeling available at restaurants could help people make healthier choices.
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To help advance this goal, the Affordable Care Act required certain retail food establishments to disclose nutrition information for their menu items. Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released the final rules related to this provision. Broader than many expected, the rules encompass a wider variety of establishments, ranging from restaurants to vending machines.
What are the rules?
All restaurants, retail food establishments and vending machine chains with over 20 locations nationwide must provide clear and comprehensible information on the following:
- Calories for each item on menus and menu boards (or signs next to self-serve items), as well as federally recommended daily caloric intake.
- Upon request, written nutritional information that includes the following for each menu item: total calories, total calories from fat, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, sugars, dietary fiber and protein.
Most establishments will have until November 2015 to comply.
The Pros, the Cons of Calorie and Nutrition Labeling
Predictably, support for federal menu labeling requirements is mixed. The public health community supports the approach as a way to improve transparency and help consumers make informed choices about what they eat. In addition, the restaurant industry has stated that it would rather have a single set of rules than “a patchwork of differing state and local requirements.”
However, some establishments opposed the requirements. The grocery lobby argued that implementing labeling for certain items would represent a new cost that would ultimately be passed to consumers. Pizza chains claimed that determining calorie and nutritional information for pizza, a highly customizable food, would necessitate wide calorie ranges that would not end up being useful.
Notwithstanding the arguments for and against federal labeling requirements, the question remains: Do informed choices equal healthier choices? It may be too early to tell. Some initial studies didn’t show a significant impact of calorie labeling on healthier choices 1 , 2 . Other research is more promising: One study found increased awareness and use of calorie information following menu labeling regulation, while another showed calorie labeling reduced the chances of university students’ gaining weight over the course of a year by 50 percent.
It will take time to determine the long-term effects of calorie and nutrition labeling on obesity among older adults. In addition to labeling requirements, policymakers and consumer advocates must develop other policies and strategies that address the wide variety of social, economic and environmental factors that contribute to obesity. There is no single, simple solution — ending obesity will require a multifaceted approach with all stakeholders working together.
*AARP Public Policy Institute analysis using data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.
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