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As Americans eat out more, the restaurant industry continues to grow. The average American eats restaurant food almost six times per week and spends nearly half of his or her food budget on meals eaten away from home, according to a 2008 National Restaurant Association (NRA) research study. The NRA's 2013 study found that 45 percent of adult Americans stated that restaurants are a vital part of their lifestyle.
As restaurant consumption has grown, so too have overall industry sales. In 1980, restaurant industry sales were $119.6 billion. Thirty years later, sales have reached approximately $660.5 billion, according to the latest NRA research.
Another trend seen over the past 30 years? A rise in obesity rates across the nation.
Several studies have found that the rise in obesity rates is a reflection of consumers' dependence on restaurants. For example: a 2005 article in the Journal of Nutrition states that "the rise in obesity rates over the past 30 years has been paralleled by increases in the portion size of many foods and the prevalence of eating away from home."
Meanwhile, a separate study: "Menu Labeling: Does Providing Nutrition Information at the Point of Purchase Affect Consumer Behavior?" found that consumers underestimate the nutritional value of calories and fat on most restaurant menus and food items purchased away from home.
"They tend to make greater errors when menu items are high in calories or when they're ordering from establishments that promote their menu items as healthy," the study revealed.
Because of this underestimation, Americans' average calorie intake increased by almost 200 calories per day between 1977 and 1996.
This is where menu labeling begins to play a strong role in fighting the obesity epidemic that is plaguing the U.S.
Back when the fight to label packaged foods was being waged in the 1990s, consumer interest in labels and claims as to whether the food was healthy or not drove manufacturers to begin labeling their products. Research conducted by the Institute of Medicine (released in 2011) discovered that packaged food labels do influence consumers—especially consumers with less interest in or understanding of nutrition. Over time, many consumers have reported that they have purchased something they normally wouldn't have, simply because of a package label.
How can diners make responsible, healthy choices when they don't have the information they need? If most consumers are underestimating the number of calories and fat in their restaurant meals, how is it affecting their health?
A 2008 Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity report found that up to 83 percent of American adults are in favor of menu labeling, and are actively seeking out healthier eating options.
In the fight against obesity, the first hurdle we must cross is the hurdle of ignorance. It's time to step up and give consumers the information they need in order to make informed decisions about the food that they eat. Show your diners that you care about their health, and they'll keep coming back for more.