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Nutrition Superstition – How Your Grandma’s Tales Could Actually Be True

Student Blogger
By Brett Loman

Nutrition may be a relatively young science, but perhaps the intuition of our elders has informed us more than we realize. Food superstitions are as old as culture itself and essentially every civilization has added its share to the ever-growing list of dos and don'ts. In respect to two months in a row with Friday the 13ths this year, I investigated how some long-standing tales about what we eat might actually be grounded in truth.

Spilling salt brings bad luck. This widely recognized superstition originating in ancient Greece may hold some hidden truths. One of the most commonly believed concepts about sodium (salt) today is that eating too much can aggravate conditions such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and chronic kidney disease. The American Heart Association and National Kidney Foundation recommend limiting salt consumption to about 1,500 mg/d. So whether you believe the superstition or modern medicine, you will think twice and shake the habit of spilling salt onto your meal.

Eating garlic, onions, and mustard seeds is good luck by granting blessings or warding off evil. This superstition is rooted in many proverbs, and it just so happens that vegetables in the Amaryllis (onions, garlic, etc) and Brassicaceae (mustard, broccoli, etc) families are being investigated as anticarcinogens. Many of the naturally occurring phytochemicals in these plants may serve to halt the formation of cancer causing compounds, enhance repair of damaged DNA, and induce apoptosis of tumor cells. Chowing down on these luckily talismans could ward off disease, but don't forget that those same beneficial compounds may also scare off your friends with the odors they leave lingering behind.

Bringing bananas on a boat will cause fishermen ill will and a bad catch. Green bananas, coincidentally, may just cause some unwanted symptoms of illness. Un-ripened bananas are a good source of resistant starch. Depending on your personal disposition, fermentation of resistant starch could either provide a healthy dose of short-chain fatty acids to the intestines, or a healthy dose of gas and diarrhea. Any angler would have difficulty landing the big one between frequent trips to the loo, and that's no fish tale.

Planting parsley will help a woman become pregnant. Of course having good nutrition is important for increasing chances of beginning a pregnancy, but parsley is specifically of interest for the health of the newly developing fetus. This ubiquitous herb is a good source of many vitamins and minerals, including folic acid. In the first few weeks, adequate folate is especially important for preventing neural tube defects in the rapidly growing baby. Consider sowing seeds of parsley before sowing your wild oats.

Every day we find out more and more about how our eating habits affect our bodies, but in some cases we shouldn't overlook what prior generations have already provided us. Tell the researchers and your grandma thanks for the advice.

References

1.    Cobb, L.K., Anderson, C.A.M., Elliott, P., et al. Methodological issues in cohort studies that relate sodium intake to cardiovascular disease outcomes: A science advisory from the American Heart Association (2014) Circulation, 129 (10), pp. 1173-1186. http://www.scopus.com/inward/record.url?eid=2-s2.0-84895928005&partnerID=40&md5=75ecd90a4f86d73a8c200d300b4ca6c8
2.    https://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/HealthyEating/About-Sodium-Salt_UCM_463416_Article.jsp
3.    https://www.kidney.org/atoz/content/sodiumckd
4.    http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/prevention/garlic-and-cancer-prevention#r18
5.    http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/complementaryandalternativemedicine/dietandnutrition/broccoli
6.    http://digestivehealthinstitute.org/2013/05/10/resistant-starch-friend-or-foe/
7.    http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/3080?fg=&man=&lfacet=&format=&count=&max=25&offset=&sort=&qlookup=parsley
8.    http://www.cdc.gov/features/folicacidbenefits/


EB 2015 Preview: Nutrition and Inflammation

Student Blogger
By Sheela Sinharoy

The EB 2015 program is online! A highlight for me will be the symposium  Approaches to Account for the Effects of Inflammation on Nutrient Biomarkers: Nutrition Determinants of Anemia (BRINDA) project, scheduled for Monday, March 30 at 3:00 pm. BRINDA has brought together data from 15 countries, accessing surveys that include preschool children, school age children, and women of reproductive age, to examine the relationship between inflammation, nutrition biomarkers, and anemia.

Although many of us think of iron when we think of anemia – and it is widely accepted that iron deficiency is the major cause of anemia worldwide – we also know that there are many other factors influencing hemoglobin levels. Deficiencies of vitamins A, C, E, B6, B12, riboflavin, folate, copper, and zinc can all cause anemia through varied biological mechanisms. Other important factors affecting hemoglobin include inflammation, chronic disease, infection with parasites, and hemoglobinopathies.

Inflammation not only causes anemia but also affects the biomarkers that are used to measure anemia and nutrient status. Hemoglobin itself is influenced by inflammation: just as smoking and high altitudes lead to decreased oxygen levels in the blood, inflammation has a similar effect, increasing hemoglobin concentrations. Similarly, ferritin is commonly used to measure iron status, but ferritin increases in the acute phase response (APR). Retinol binding protein, which is used to measure vitamin A, decreases in the APR. Thus, inflammation can distort estimates, making it difficult to measure the actual prevalence of anemia or nutrient deficiencies. Initial findings from BRINDA suggest that inflammation is common across the sample and should be taken into consideration when measuring nutrient status.

What can be done about this? How can nutrition programs account for inflammation when measuring nutrient status? Is there a correction factor that one can apply to the standard measurements? How can programs most reliably estimate the etiology of anemia in their target populations? Given the prevalence of anemia worldwide, it is crucial to have a better understanding of its risk factors and approaches to measure them.  The symposium will address these questions.

The topics above will be further addressed in two minisymposia on March 31: the Medical Nutrition Council's “Nutrition and Inflammation” at 10:30 am and the Global Nutrition Council's “Advances in Biomarker Development and Use” from 3:00-5:00 pm. In the first session, Leila Larson and Yaw Addo will share findings from BRINDA on specific methods to account for inflammation when measuring retinol binding protein for vitamin A and transferrin receptor for iron status. In the second, Rebecca Merrill will present data on the prevalence of inflammation among preschool children across twelve countries and its association with growth. These presentations from the BRINDA team can have wide-ranging implications and will be of interest to policy makers, program implementers, and academic researchers alike.


Is There a Best Calorie Counter?

Student Blogger
By Brett Loman

Americans are more aware of what we are eating than ever before, but how we choose to track this information varies quite a lot. Some simply choose to eat more or less of a specific type of food while others record every single thing that they consume. In light of this, I decided to give a few programs a test run. I've rated them with 3 stars being the highest.

SuperTracker  **½ overall
(free online tool, part of the MyPlate website published by the USDA)
At first impression I was overwhelmed by the multitude of –initially- empty tables and graphs. Once I got into the swing of things, however, my concerns transformed into amusement.
Ease of Use – **
While only be accessed through a web browser, the mobile site is an apt adaptation of the desktop version. Searching for each food is simple enough, but things get cumbersome when selecting the number of units. There is a multitude of units to choose from (e.g. fluid ounces, grams, slices, etc) but the number of those units is limited to a select few choices in a drop down menu.
Foods Available – **
Only some name brands and restaurants are available as choices. However, I could build the majority of complex foods using the basic selections that were available.
Nutrient Information ***
I was surprised by how much detailed information this program offers. Nearly every macronutrient, vitamin, and mineral was addressed in the “Nutrients Report”. This report offers target and average intake side-by-side plus expandable menus that explain which foods contributed (and by what percentage) to that nutrient's intake.
Recommendation Information – ***
This is where the graphics are exceptionally helpful. They compare my intake to recommendations on the basis of food groups (broken down into things such as refined versus whole grains), empty calories, and individual nutrients.

MyDietAnalysis  **overall
(subscription-based website provided by Pearson)
It happens to be the tracker utilized by my university's introductory nutrition course, so naturally I had to give it a try.
Ease of Use – *
It is only available through a web browser, and the mobile site was not very user-friendly. Commonly chosen foods were under a completely separate menu unhelpfully named “Fast Entry” and only 7 days of intake could be store at one time.
Foods Available – ***
This program has the most specific food items I have seen in a tracker program. Most of the major chain restaurant and grocery brands are represented, cutting out the guesswork involved when building an item from scratch.
Nutrient Information – **
They come awfully close to matching SuperTracker in this respect, but MyDietAnalysis falls short since nearly the same information is presented… on several different pages.
Recommendation Information –  **
The “Actual Intakes –vs- Recommended Intakes” report shows you just that for all of the nutrients side-by-side. The bar graph is a nice touch, but the scale for percent of goal met could use a little help, given that I didn't even realize that it was there at first.

MyFitnessPal *½ overall
(free website and mobile application)
Definitely the app most-mentioned by patients and friends who claim to track their eating habits, tempting me to give it a go.
Ease of Use – ***
By far the greatest strength of this program is its availability as a mobile app. Eating lunch out? Just whip out your phone and track it on the spot. Another handy feature puts the foods you eat most often in a checklist immediately under the search box.
Foods Available – *
What I see as both a major weakness and strength of this app is the ability of any user to create foods, which can then be shared community wide. Sure, it's great for the company, but the problem lies in the room for inaccuracies and errors.
Nutrient Information – *
Disappointingly, only nutrients routinely found on the nutrition facts panel were available. Again accuracy depends upon who actually entered the food into the database.
Recommendations Information – *
Only 6 of the nutrients could be displayed on my homepage at a time, and the printable report doesn't even include all nutrients available, nor any averages of my intake compared to recommendations.

Final Thoughts
So are any of these inaccuracies, shortcomings, or lack of information harmful? I'd say probably not. The important thing here is that any of these tools can get people aware of what they are eating so that healthy changes can be made. With that I say happy tracking and please discuss in the comment section below.

Are We Doing Nutrition Messaging Right?

Student Blogger
By Debbie Fetter

The other day I was sitting in class and the professor showed us a music video that compared sugar to drugs, which really got me thinking about the types of nutrition messaging. There are many campaigns out there targeting nutrition-related areas for change, particularly in the childhood obesity arena. However, many of these campaigns use bold images and scare-tactics to convey the message. Is this the approach we should be taking to create a healthier change?

The obesity epidemic has sparked an urgent need for preventative action. The Institute of Medicine released a report in 2012, Accelerating Progress in Obesity Prevention: Solving the Weight of the Nation, which expressed the need for transformative approaches to changing the environment, especially for “messaging environments.” Due to the increased use of social marketing, product marketing and labeling, and public media campaigns, the potential for utilizing communication in the prevention of obesity is great (1). There have been many campaigns floating around the media in the past decade. A memorable one was Strong4Life, which was created in 2011 by Children's HealthCare of Atlanta, a leading pediatric hospital. This initiative used “in-your-face advertising” to aggressively fight Georgia's childhood obesity problem (1). The initial advertisements featured somber children describing their struggles with obesity (1).

obesity kids.jpg

These advertisements generated concern among public health experts due to the fear that the portrayals of overweight children could intensify the weight-based stigma (1). This type of message emphasized the negative health and social consequences of obesity. Health communications can be framed to emphasize either the benefits of participating in a type of behavior (a gain-frame), or the consequences of not participating in a type of behavior (a loss-frame) (2). There is evidence that suggests non-stereotypical, positive media portrayals of obese and overweight individuals can effectively decrease weight-based stigma, while negative portrayals may even worsen the stigma (3). Further, gain-framed communications seem to be more effective than loss-framed communications in endorsing prevention behaviors (2). When the message is framed to stimulate core values, the persuasion factor increases, since the person is more likely to pay attention and accept the message (4).

Campaigns should highlight information that is new to the desired audience and necessary for behavior change (5). It would be useful for health communications to incorporate the “how to” and “when to” knowledge in order to support behavior change (5). Also, misconceptions about the issue may need to be addressed, along with other real and perceived barriers to behavior change (5). Ideally, before public release, communication strategies should be evaluated to determine how effective they would be in supporting the target outcome and without exacerbating any sort of stigma (1). As the use of technology continues to increase, there certainly will be no shortage of health campaigns. Hopefully, the messages will be effective in inspiring positive health changes without creating negative stigma or fear.

References
1.    Barry CL, Gollust SE, McGinty EE, Niederdeppe J. Effects of messages from a media campaign to increase public awareness of childhood obesity. Obesity, 2014; 22: 466–473. doi:10.1002/oby.20570
2.    Gallagher KM, Updegraff JA. Health message framing effects on attitudes, intentions, and behavior: A meta-analytic review. Ann Behav Med, 2012; 43: 101–116. doi:10.1007/s12160-011-9308-7
3.    Pearl RL, Puhl RM, Brownell KD. Positive media portrayals of obese persons: impact on attitudes and image preferences. Health Psychol, 2012; 31: 821–829. doi:10.1037/a0027189
4.    Gollust SE, Niederdeppe J, Barry CL. Framing the consequences of childhood obesity to increase public support for obesity prevention policy. Am J Public Health, 2013; 103: e96–e102. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2013.301271
5.    Snyder, LB. Health communication campaigns and their impact on behavior. J Nutr Educ Behav, 2007; 39: S32–S40. doi:10.1016/j.jneb.2006.09.004


Multiple Micronutrients Offer Multiple Possibilities for Pregnant Women and Newborns

Student Blogger
By Marion L. Roche, PhD, Micronutrient Initiative

An estimated 42% of pregnant women are anemic. Anaemia in pregnancy is associated with increased mortality for mothers and infants, low birth weight in infants and increased risk of premature delivery. Iron Folic Acid (IFA) supplementation is recommended where anaemia is a public health concern. Many in the global nutrition research community have been anxiously awaiting the JiVitA-3 Randomized Trial in Bangladesh.  This study has been looking at the comparative effectiveness of iron folic acid (IFA) supplements vs. multiple micronutrient supplements for pregnant women and one month postpartum.

This recent research in Bangladesh, which shows potential to reduce preterm births and low birth weight, holds promise for contributing to global reductions in neonatal mortality, although reductions in infant mortality were not found to be significant in this study. Low birth weight puts infants at risk of neonatal mortality and developmental consequences later in life. The risks of neonatal deaths for preemies and the critical importance of addressing preterm births has gained increasing recognition through the “Born too Soon” Global Action Report.

These results are exciting and will be balanced with the costs of transitioning from IFA to multiple micronutrients as countries decide how, when, and if to transition to “multis.”  For many countries, the multiple micronutrients will be an added cost, and will come with substantial implications for procurement and supply management. They will also be a new product for many of the physicians, nurses, health workers and family members that have a role of supporting and encouraging pregnant women, and most importantly for pregnant women themselves.

Multiple micronutrient supplements will only have benefits if pregnant women have access to the supplements, receive them early enough in pregnancy to consume the recommended dose, and be supported, motivated and encouraged to consume the supplements daily. Global experiences with IFA supplementation would suggest that adherence has been one of the greatest challenges to behaviour change. Supporting adherence requires a reliable supply, encouraging counseling for pregnant women and improving a women's access to IFA and related ante natal care services.

Nepal's national iron intensification project is an example of a project that, for over eight years, was able to increase iron coverage from 23% to 80% and increase adherence of 90 tablets from 6% to 56%.  This was largely achieved through the integration of a community based delivery system of female community health volunteers (FCHVs) who delivered the IFA supplements to women in their community and also encouraged them and restocked their IFA supply when needed. The FCHVs also received participatory training and provided practical advice on how to support and encourage women. Additional strategies will be needed to further increase adherence and maintain the motivation of the FCHVs.

Nepal

As the global nutrition community reflects on the implications of the evidence from this new study, they will also be looking to learn from IFA programs and the successes and challenges. Whether IFA or multis are selected as part of the strategy for anemia reduction and improving maternal and newborn health, innovative approaches and replication of best practices and promising strategies for increasing adherence and coverage are needed to reduce maternal anaemia and benefit infants.


Tardy to the Party - Nutrition in the Genetic Engineering Conversation

Student Blogger
By Kevin Klatt

The National Academies of Science, the World Health Organization, The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the European Food Safety Authority and Food Standards Australia New Zealand are just a few of the international organizations that have position papers on the use of genetic engineering as it applies to food. These reports all conclude that genetically modified foods present no unique safety threats compared to traditionally bred crops and/or have not been linked to detrimental human health outcomes (the Genetic Literacy Project has a nice infographic depicting these organizations here). Notably missing from this extensive list are, oddly, nutrition organizations.

Two of the major American nutrition organizations are the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) and the American Society for Nutrition (ASN). The AND does not currently have a position on genetic engineering; however, its member center (1) informs us that a new Evidence Analysis Library paper entitled “Advanced Technology in Food Production” is due to come out soon. ASN does not have an official position paper on genetic engineering, either. Rather, genetically engineered foods are briefly mentioned in two of their publications: “Processed Foods: contributions to nutrition” (2) and “Nutrition Research to Affect Food and A Healthy Lifespan” (3).

At a time when misinformation about genetically engineered crops is all too common in the public discourse, it seems rather odd that neither of the two largest nutrition organizations are providing guidance on or actively engaging in this topic of conversation. Nevertheless, the conversation continues on without nutrition. A quick look at the agenda (4) for the upcoming National Academies workshop on January 15-16th entitled “When Science and Citizens Connect: Public Engagement on Genetically Modified Organisms” highlights this disheartening reality: no one representing the field of nutrition is scheduled in the line-up of speakers or presenters.

There are likely many reasons why nutrition has abstained from the conversation. Genetically engineered foods inherently address wildly interdisciplinary concepts: everything from sustainability, to agricultural economics and plant genetics. Nutrition is certainly a piece of the puzzle, but it is not the whole thing. Alternatively, maybe we were not invited to the conversation. It only takes a few seconds of Google'ing to see that many nutrition professionals, particularly registered dietitians, have been rather vocal in the crusade against genetically engineered foods.

Regardless of the reason for nutrition's absenteeism, the field should take a vested interest in influencing the conversation with its unique perspective. The scientific literature is filled with numerous examples of genetic engineering with great potential for the field, even beyond the case of golden-rice; folate-enriched tomatoes (5), calcium-enhanced carrots (6), non-browning Arctic Apples (7) and low acrylamide potatoes (8) illustrate just a few of the ways that GE technology can be responsibly used to improve the nutrient quality of an individual's diet. A recent paper in Nature Biotechnology did a thorough analysis of the status and market potential of transgenic biofortified crops, highlighting the wide spectrum that have undergone nutrient biofortification and their potential role in human nutrition (9). As this paper highlights, the promise and potential of GE foods is not that they will be the solution to improving diet, but rather, that they can be a part of the solution. We have been breeding crops with little to no consideration for the nutritional phenotype for centuries (10); nutritional scientists working with plant scientists (similar to what HarvestPlus currently does) could certainly alter that trajectory and improve the nutrient quality of the food supply. In addition to genetically engineered crops for human consumption, genetically engineering feed consumed by farm animals can alter the nutrient profiles of animal foods; most recently, yeast genetically modified to produce their own omega 3 fatty acids (11) made headlines as a way to sustainably improve the fatty acid profiles of farmed salmon (12). Though likely far from market availability, the potential to genetically engineer animals themselves to alter their nutrient profiles has even been discussed (13).

While the promise of genetic engineering's potential abounds, ASN's publication on the future of nutrition research (3) asks us a rather prudent question: “Can we leverage technologies, such as biotechnology and nanotechnology, to develop novel foods and food ingredients that will improve health, both domestically and abroad, and provide credible, tangible functional health benefits?” As it stands now, the answer to that question is still unknown, and further research to identify the answer continues unguided by statements from professional nutrition organizations.

The scientific community as a whole could benefit from including nutrition in the genetic engineering conversation. As the National Academies prepare for this conference, and wonder how to improve communications between the public and scientists, I cannot help but see an alternative route through nutrition. While the National Academies seems to realize that crops resistant to already-feared agricultural chemicals offer an intangible benefit to consumers, their focus on chestnut trees, butterflies, and mosquitoes still feels distant. Addressing the conflation of genetic engineering with pesticide resistance is certainly a start, but these alternative applications of genetic engineering do not address food, which is where the controversy exists most prominently. To truly address this issue, the public is going to need to see a direct benefit from genetic engineering as it applies to food; nutrient biofortification offers a promising outlet for this. Imagine if individuals were introduced to genetically engineered foods through folate-enriched tomatoes instead of pesticide-resistant corn.  

Position stances from nutrition organizations on the applications, safety aspects, and future directions of genetically engineered foods are long overdue. With the genetic engineering debate furthering consumer distrust in scientific bodies, it is all the more essential for prominent nutrition organizations to team up with other scientific bodies, and enter into this conversation. The benefactors of our research and professional activities are those who eat food, some of which is genetically modified; we should no longer sit silent on this major food-related issue.

References

1.    http://www.eatright.org/Members/content.aspx?id=6442482664
2.    http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/99/6/1525.abstract
3.    http://advances.nutrition.org/content/4/5/579.full
4.    http://nas-sites.org/publicinterfaces/files/2014/07/PILS-02-GMO-Interface-agenda05.pdf
5.    http://www.pnas.org/content/101/38/13720.full
6.    http://www.pnas.org/content/105/5/1431.long
7.    http://www.arcticapples.com/arctic-apple-nutrition/
8.    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2607532/
9.    http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v33/n1/full/nbt.3110.html
10.    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20467463
11.    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20804805
12.    http://civileats.com/2014/02/24/costco-to-sell-salmon-fed-gmo-yeast/
13.    https://www.bio.org/sites/default/files/2011_ge%20animal_benefits_report.pdf

ACCN14 Follow-up Survey

Suzanne Price
Help ASN Plan for 2015 and Beyond! Whether you attended this year's Advances & Controversies in Clinical Nutrition conference or were unable, please take a quick survey to share your thoughts on potential topics, speakers and locations for ACCN in 2015.

Nutrition and Media – An Imperfect Union

Student Blogger
By Brett Loman

Carbs increase belly fat. Gluten-free diets cure cancer. Artificial sweeteners cause diabetes. It seems like the more we hear about nutrition, the less we actually “know.” Facts and data give way to beliefs and assumptions. In the hands of the media and laypeople even solid research is boiled down to broad sweeping generalizations about marvelous miracles and perilous poisons. Since my last blog post(1) I've been contemplating this dilemma and paused on a thought – can we blame them?

There are three key players at work here: scientists, media, and laypeople. As I discussed last time, scientists are sensationalizing their work under the stress of the current scientific machine.  As a result, scientists relay eye-catching yet complicated messages to the media. Members of the media generally aren't scientists. Plus, to receive newly published studies requires a subscription or email request. Just like any other industry, the media's ultimate goal is to make a profit. To make this profit they need to sell advertising and to sell advertising they need to capture viewers/listeners/web surfers (the laypeople).

This throws a wrench into things. Detailed data turns into 25 seconds of broad reaching conclusions spoken over images of test tubes and lab coats.

Audiences everywhere hear “drinking more coffee could prevent diabetes, a new Harvard study reveals.” Joe Schmo, who has limited scientific interpretation skills, type I diabetes, and no healthy dose of skepticism, runs out for a Frappuccino. We've not accomplished the goal.

So who is to blame, and what can we do to fix it? As scientists, we need to take ownership of our work and ensure that we deliver our findings to the public in a way that is both responsible and comprehensible. To take it a step further, scientists need to become a bigger part of the mechanism by interacting with the media. Public service announcements and PBS specials aren't going to cut it. We need charismatic scientists who are committed to expressing complex scientific information in an interesting and accessible way. However, this isn't traditionally part of our training. This will take some work to acquire a new skill set, but the payoff will be instrumental to society.

As a population, we need to make sure that scientific reasoning is a skill that is stressed in our schools prior to higher education and that information is made publicly available. Science is not a body of static facts as it is presented to children today, but a fluid system of critical thinking that asks you to sort through good and bad information and decide the facts for yourself. A good discussion and suggestions for accomplishing this feat can be found at Science Direct.

We all share the blame, but there are definite steps that we can make to repair the system. It may take a little ingenuity, but I have the confidence that we can adapt. What do you think?


References
1.    http://www.nutrition.org/asn-blog/2014/08/research-publishing-a-contrary-scientific-environment/
2.    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1871187113000503


Does Counting Calories Actually Count?

Student Blogger
By Debbie Fetter

“Wow! I had no idea there was so many calories in that,” a family friend exclaimed at a baseball game. The menu labeling regulations would be pleased. “I was going to get the peanuts, but now I'm getting the hot dog because it has less calories.” Now we have a problem–if only he knew that a portion size of peanuts would be more nutritious than the hot dog.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently released the highly anticipated menu and vending machine calorie labeling requirements. These rules, as part of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, require calorie information to be labeled on menus, including menu boards, in chain restaurants, similar retail food establishments, and vending machines, that have 20 or more locations. The hope is the nutritional information displays will help consumers make more healthful choices. The question is, do consumers actually modify their food choices when presented with the calorie information? Or, are these menu-labeling laws just an unsuccessful battle on the fight against obesity? The LEAN Act, introduced in 2008 by Congress, has already spearheaded posting calorie content information on menus in several major US cities (1). Since there already has been exposure to menu labeling, let's take a look at some of the evidence so far.

Ideally, customers will order less caloric meals once they know the true calorie contents. Realizing some customers may be alarmed at the high calorie content, restaurants may even choose to reduce the calorie content of their items by using healthier ingredients (2). Almost half of American's food expenditures and calories come from quick and table service restaurants. Consumers also tend to underestimate the calorie content, and this underestimation increases as the meal calorie levels increase. Burton and colleagues conducted a consumer diary study to examine how accurately consumers estimate the calorie content of their food. Nutrition information estimates for calorie, fat, and sodium were all underestimated (p<0.001). After exposure to the nutrition information, meals lower in calories (less than 720 cal) had a significant increase in attractiveness (p<0.01), whereas meals higher in calories (greater than 1,030 cal) had a significant decrease in attractiveness (p<0.001). These findings suggest that providing the nutrition information on the menus may cause customers to purchase less caloric meals, and could even cause restaurants to reformulate higher calorie foods because of the decline in sales.

There are barriers to consumers' understanding and use of this nutrition information, such as price, time constraints, confusion or lack of understanding about nutrition information, personal preference, hunger, and purchasing habits. Among five fast-food restaurant studies that have been conducted, only one study found a significant association between menu labeling and choosing a purchase with fewer calories. This calorie reduction was equal to only 14.4 (5.8%) fewer calories. Further, calorie reductions have been shown to be greater in areas where the people had more education and higher incomes (4).

Harnack and colleagues conducted a randomized 2x2 factorial experiment to test the effects of calorie labeling and value size pricing on fast food meal choices. Participants were adolescents and adults who regularly ate fast food (n=594) and were randomly placed in one of four groups. The “control menu” had value pricing, but didn't list the calorie content. The “calorie menu” had both the listed calorie content and value pricing. The “price menu” didn't list the calorie content or have value pricing. The “calorie plus price menu” listed the calorie content, but didn't have value pricing. Participants were instructed to order individually from their assigned menu with a staff member. When participants finished eating, the remaining food was covertly measured using a digital food scale. A final interview was conducted upon leaving where the staff member asked questions about nutrition knowledge and beliefs, and recorded self-reported height and weight. The average energy and nutrient composition of the meals were similar (p=0.25), regardless of the experimental condition. This suggests that providing calorie information may have little effect on food choices on people who already regularly consume fast food. Also, when asked to rate the importance of price, taste, nutrition, and convenience when buying food from either a fast food restaurant or a grocery store, taste was the highest rated answer for each scenario (97.6% and 98.5%, respectively). Nutrition was the least likely to be ranked as number 1 out of these factors. These findings indicate that provision of calorie information may not have much effect on regular fast food customers.

Results from a systematic review and meta-analysis found that menu labeling, with calories alone, did not have the desired effect of consumers choosing and consuming fewer calories (4). Additional contextual or interpretive nutrition information on menus seemed to help consumers in the selection and consumption of fewer calories. Further research needs to be done to find the most successful approach for providing menu-based nutrition information, especially for consumers who may be limited in their food and health literacy skills.

References
1.    Burton S, Howlett E, Heintz Tangari A. Food for thought: How will the nutrition labeling of quick service restaurant menu items influence consumers' product evaluations, purchase intentions, and choices? J of Retailing. 2009;85(3):258-273. doi:10.1016/j.jretai.2009.04.007
2.    Farley TA, Caffarelli A, Bassett MT, Silver L, Frieden TR. New York City's fight over calorie labeling. Health Aff. 2009;28(6):w1098-1109. doi:10.1377/hlthaff.28.6.w1098
3.    Harnack LJ, French SA, Oakes JM, Story MT, Jeffery RW, Rydell SA. Effects of calorie labeling and value size pricing on fast food meal choices: results from an experimental trial. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2008;5:63. doi:10.1186/1479-5868-5-63
4.    Sinclair SE, Cooper M, Mansfield ED. The influence of menu labeling on calories selected or consumed: A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2014;114(9):1375-1388. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2014.05.014


The Risks and Benefits of Weight Loss in Overweight Seniors: ACCN Day Three

Student Blogger
By Sheela Sinharoy, Student Blogger

Is weight loss always recommended for obese persons, or are there some individuals for whom weight loss may not be necessary or may even be harmful? In a session on Saturday, Dr. Julie Locher looked at this question in relation to seniors. Given that 14% of Americans – or one in seven – are over age 65, and that this proportion is expected to increase to 20% by 2030, it is important to understand the needs and special requirements of this group.

As the proportion of Americans who are over age 65 increases, so too does the prevalence of overweight and obesity. According to Dr. Locher, approximately 35% of older persons are obese. Many of these individuals experience co-morbidities and functional limitations, which are often associated with or impacted by obesity. However, the effects of weight loss treatment in older adults have not been extensively studied.

The benefits of weight loss in older adults are similar to those found in the general population, including reduced markers of inflammation and improved cardiovascular health. As co-morbid conditions increase with age, weight loss may address some of these conditions. Especially when weight loss occurs through a combination of diet and exercise, research has shown that muscle quality and physical function also improve, as does global cognition.

At the same time, some studies have found being overweight to be potentially beneficial. For older adults in particular, a number of studies indicate that being overweight yields no extra risk of mortality, and in fact, may be associated with a lower risk of mortality than being normal weight. Obesity is also associated with increased bone mineral density and decreased osteoporosis as well as with decreased risk of hip fracture.

In addition, weight loss in overweight seniors carries certain risks. First, intentional weight loss is associated with a loss of bone mineral density. Also, weight cycling – when individuals lose and then regain weight – may be a more serious concern with older adults because of their different body composition. When seniors regain weight, it is disproportionately fat, especially abdominal fat, compared to lean muscle. This is associated with higher cardiometabolic risk and an increased risk of disability and mortality.

Even among older adults, needs may differ between sub-populations. For example, as the proportion of older adults continues to rise, the fastest-growing segment is those ages 85 and over. These individuals may require a different therapeutic approach than younger seniors, and improving physical function and quality of life may be more important than obesity treatment.

As some providers move increasingly toward personalized medicine, this may be one more way in which recommendations and a therapeutic approach may need to be tailored to the individual patient. Depending on their bone health, metabolic health, and a range of other factors, doctors may decide that weight loss is not always the best approach for obese older adults. For some seniors, the risks of weight loss may in fact not outweigh the benefits.