The average American eats out at a fast food or dine-in restaurant five times a week.
On average, fast food contains 1,848 milligrams of sodium per 1,000 calories. At McDonald's, for example, a Quarter Pounder with Cheese Value Meal with a medium Coke contains 1,275 milligrams of sodium, or more than half of the daily salt intake recommended by most dietary guidelines. At dine-in restaurants, an average meal can yield up to 2,090 milligrams of sodium.
Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), wants health departments to work with restaurants to reduce the amount of sodium Americans take in when they dine out, in an effort to shrink waistlines and reduce cases of high blood pressure.
“The bottom line is that it’s both possible and life-saving to reduce sodium, and this can be done by reducing, replacing, and reformulating,” he said Thursday in a statement to the media. “When restaurants rethink how they prepare food and the ingredients they choose to use, healthier options become routine for customers.”
But according to one study released this week, most Americans believe that food-related epidemics like obesity are the fault of individuals, not restaurants or the government.
Healthy Substitutions a Success in Philadelphia
A recent initiative in Philadelphia aimed to lower the sodium levels in popular Chinese take-out dishes, with guidelines and cooking classes that encouraged restaurants to try non-sodium flavorings like chilies and garlic. After nine months, samples of two popular dishes from 20 of the 206 participating restaurants were down 20 percent in sodium levels.
“The story in Philadelphia shows what can be done,” Frieden said.
While the CDC can only encourage change, rather than mandate it, it hopes to see more local and state health departments working with restaurants to inspect the sodium content of their dishes, post nutritional information, and explain to food service staff the benefits of low-sodium dishes.
“It’s not about giving up the food you love, but providing lower sodium options that taste great,” Frieden said.
Regulatory Efforts Are Hotly Debated, But Do They Work?
Making these practices mandatory often sparks heated debate.
A 2010 proposal to ban all salt in New York City restaurants caused an uproar, especially from chefs and foodies. The bill failed, but a ban on extra-large sodas—another source of excess sugar and salt in the American diet—passed, but was later overturned by the courts.
Critics of such initiatives bemoan the government playing the role of "nanny state" and emphasize personal responsibility, while proponents argue that these steps are necessary to curb health epidemics, including obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, three conditions in which diet plays a large role.
A recent survey from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign says that creating and enforcing public policies to encourage healthier food choices “may not be as effective as policy makers would like.”
Who Is Responsible for the Obesity Epidemic?
While several factors contribute to obesity, including exercise levels, genetics, and food choices, people are often quick to point fingers at who they think is responsible.
The vast majority of Americans believe the finger should be pointed directly at the person in the mirror, according to a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign study released this week in the journal Appetite.
Researchers asked 774 people who was to blame for the rise in obesity: individuals, parents, farmers, food manufacturers, grocery stores, restaurants, or the government?
Ninety-four percent of respondents said that they believed individuals were either primarily or somewhat to blame for the rise in obesity, with parents coming in second at 91 percent. Farmers and grocery stores were effectively off the hook.
“Based on our study results, the more likely conclusion is that consumers' beliefs about who is to blame for obesity don't necessarily align with the beliefs of policy makers and public health advocates,” lead researcher Brenna Ellison said in a statement. “In the United States, we're known for being an individualistic society, so it's not exceptionally surprising that we would put this responsibility for obesity on ourselves.”