It s the Food, Stupid

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This piece appeared May 31, 2006 on National Review Online:

Last week an FDA-sponsored and -funded report on Away from Home Foods recommended ways restaurants might lend a hand in our nation s fight against obesity. The report was based on input from a number of scientists, consumer advocates, and food-industry representatives, including members of the National Restaurant Association (which in the end did not support the report s conclusions because they unfairly targeted its industry).

Among other things, the committee urged the FDA to prevail upon restaurants to reduce portion sizes; to increase the number of low-calorie dishes on menus, particularly when it comes to fruits, vegetables, and unfried foods; to use foods that are low in saturated fats and trans-fatty acids; and to provide nutritional and caloric information on all menu selections.

While well-intended, the FDA recommendations fall short for three reasons: They are largely impractical and inconsistent with basic practices of running a business; they confuse concerns about calories with concerns about good and bad fats; and they omit some more obvious changes and additions restaurants could make that would reduce caloric consumption due to away from home meals.

While having the government instruct restaurants that they should reduce portion sizes sounds good, it is unlikely to have any impact on the risk of obesity.

This is not to suggest that the gargantuan portions served at restaurants are not astonishing, and even sometimes horrifying; and it is extremely annoying to be chided by waiters about not liking the meal because it s been left mostly uneaten. But all of that is besides the point. Many years ago, my late colleague, Harvard s Dr. Fredrick J. Stare, expressed his concern about portion size in restaurants by writing to 100 establishments requesting that they put less food on the plates. He learned something surprising about the restaurant business; the overwhelming response from restaurateurs was: The food is the least expensive component of a meal. We understand that only a small percentage of our patrons will eat what we serve them, but it is more cost efficient for us to serve more food than most will eat (and throw the balance away) than to make the minority of eaters who want large portions unhappy and likely to complain.

When asked if restaurants might offer smaller portions for a lower price, the response was the same: Our costs are the same whether the portion size is large or small, so we cannot offer reduced prices for smaller-sized meals. The same issue would apply to meal-splitting. Many restaurants now add a surcharge onto shared meals.

Perhaps, in time, some clever marketers will find a way to base an ad campaign on the growing demand for somewhat less expensive, smaller meals. In the meantime, the solution is not to have the government telling restaurants how to run their businesses, but to educate consumers to eat only to the point that hunger is satiated and not to feel obligated always to be a member of the clean plate club.

As to nutrition-labeling at restaurants, I am ambivalent: ideally, customers should be able to request such information from the restaurant but this simply may not be practical given the constantly changing menus and ingredients (although, it is possible at restaurants like McDonald s that offer standard fare). Further, many of us would prefer not to characterize a dinner out as a purely biological experience to be assessed in terms of grams of fat. A little common sense should do the trick: obviously fettucini alfredo is calorically loaded and if you do order it, it might be prudent to eat only half.

In recommending that restaurants combat obesity by promoting foods low in saturated fats and trans-fatty acids, the FDA panel misses the point. If you are trying to cut calories, the type of fat is not your concern. No matter what the type of fat, it is calorically dense, at nine calories per gram. Indeed, this whole current kerfuffle in ads and on food labels about trans fats has become downright misleading, since consumers may think no trans fats means low in calories. It does not. Wendy s restaurants, for example, have just switched to nonhydrogenated oil, reducing trans fats, but this is unlikely to make a significant difference in the total number of calories their customers consume or, thus, in their likelihood of not becoming obese and suffering health problems. Trans fats are just one part of a larger diet, and it s the big picture that matters.

The FDA report also fails to suggest that restaurants add more menu options which would allow customers to enjoy the foods they love while taking in fewer calories. Offering reduced-calorie spreads (like oleo/yogurt blends) and salad dressings, or lower-calorie, full-taste lite ice creams, would be a good place to start. Creative chefs could be encouraged to experiment with Z-Trim or Simplesse, which are currently available fat substitutes that can be used to create such items as reduced-calorie butter, mayonnaise, cream cheese, and mashed potatoes, all nearly indistinguishable from their full-fat counterparts. If the unfairly maligned fat-substitute olestra is ever welcomed back from exile, the options for creating tasty, low-fat foods including, for instance, French fries will increase even more dramatically.

Restaurants, like any business, operate on the principle give the customers what they want. Restaurants cannot coerce patrons to choose salads over burgers and fries, and it is hopeless to ask them to do so. It is the customer who calls the shots. Until we can educate consumers about the ideal caloric intake and the calorie content of specific foods and portion sizes and motivate them to keep caloric intake within the desirable range, they are going to continue to order what they want. And restaurants will continue to accommodate them.