A typical six-inch paneer tikka sandwich at Subway with dressing is about 700 calories. This is about the same that four slices of a Margherita personal pan pizza from Pizza Hut will have and slightly more than the 634 calories a McSpicy Paneer Burger from McDonald’s has.

Meals at fast-food restaurants are often considered junk food. They have very little nutritional content, and are high on sodium and calories, reasons they are linked with obesity.

However, more people are eating out more frequently even as meals offered by restaurants—both large-chain and local stand-alones—come under the scanner for their high calories.

A typical home-cooked breakfast is 600-700 calories, lunch is 800 calories and dinner is 700-800 calories, according to Dr A. Laxmaiah, scientist and head (division of community studies) at National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), Hyderabad. Whereas, if you eat out, says Dr Laxmaiah, or order-in, a typical meal will have at least 30% more calories on account of higher sugar and fat content. Moreover, if we take into account the large portions that are served, and the side dishes, dessert and beverages, the calory count keeps mounting.

In 2017, NIN’s National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau came out with its urban nutrition report based on a survey of 53,000 urban households from 16 states. The report, which looked at the diets and nutritional status of urban households, noted that nearly 35-50% of urban men and women are overweight and suffering from obesity-related problems. Moreover, one in every three persons is suffering from hypertension and hyperlipidaemia. One in every four persons has diabetes.

According to Dr Laxmaiah, chronic lifestyle diseases have doubled over a period of 10 years as people lead sedentary lifestyles, consume more refined food, oils and sugar, and eat out more. At least 30% of the people surveyed, says Dr Laxmaiah, were eating out twice a week. This a decade ago was probably limited to once a month or to important occasions.

Packaged food companies in India have been displaying the ingredients, calories and nutritional contents on the packs since 2010. Now, for the last one year, the food regulator has asked restaurants to voluntarily print calorie counts on their menus as it looks to promote healthy eating habits.

Currently, Subway, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut give information on the calories per dish in a nutrition chart or alongside the dishes on their website. However, none of the fast-food chains or even any of the smaller restaurant chains or stand-alone restaurants display calorie count on their restaurant menu boards or alongside the name and price of the item on the menu.

Earlier this year in May, the US Food and Drug Administration mandated restaurant chains with 20 or more locations to display calories clearly and prominently on menus and menu boards next to the name/price of the food or drink. The regulation in the US had also met with a lot of resistance. It was implemented almost 15 years after being first mooted by the US Congress.

To be sure, there is no consensus on whether calory labelling on food menus is effective in promoting healthy behaviour, according to the Cochrane Review, an independent scientific network’s February report based on its analysis of 28 already published studies on the topic of nutrition labelling in restaurants. At most, people may reduce their consumption by 50 calories or 8% of a 600-calory meal, noted the review.

All the same, the impact of labelling should not be measured by the immediate impact it has on consumers’ choice of food or behaviour.

The policy works on multiple levels. In Seattle, where it was introduced in 2009, it contributed to improving consumer awareness and use of nutrition information. Additionally, some restauranteurs also reformulated their foods to have fewer calories, researchers wrote in a 2015 issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

Moreover, behaviour patterns evolve over a period of time. The best comparison is the impact of tobacco policies on smoking patterns and social norms, Harvard Medical School researcher Jason Block told Vox in November.

Fighting obesity won’t happen with voluntary or even mandatory disclosures alone. It will require implementing many more measures like reduction of salt and sugar in our food—perhaps even a rethink on how we order and consume food. It will need awareness. Disclosures are a start.

Shop Talk will take a weekly look at consumer trends, behaviour and insights.

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