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Could the war on tobacco help fight obesity?

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Dr David Hammond, public health researcher, Waterloo

Society-funded research found that adding nutritional information to menus helped consumers make healthier choices while eating out and reduced calorie consumption.

These findings provide evidence to inform policies to reduce obesity and the risk of developing cancer. Obesity is on the rise. The percentage of Canadian adults who are obese or overweight has doubled to about 65% in the last 25 years, and the percentage has tripled among kids. One reason is that Canadians are eating in restaurants more often, where they consume more calories on average than at home. Since about one-third of all cancers can be prevented through eating well, being active and maintaining a healthy body weight, researchers are looking for ways to help Canadians make healthy choices in their daily lives.

Dr David Hammond, a public health researcher at the University of Waterloo, led recent Canadian Cancer Society-funded research to test whether adding calorie information to menus helped consumers make healthier food choices while eating out. “We turned a cafeteria into a lab. We wanted to know whether menu labelling is just a feel-good thing or whether it changes how people behave and make choices,” says Dr Hammond. 

In two experiments, Dr Hammond demonstrated that consumers exposed to nutrition information on menus consumed significantly fewer calories than consumers ordering from regular menus. “This finding is the first of its kind in Canada and adds to a growing international evidence base on the issue,” he says.

Also a leading expert in tobacco control, Dr Hammond is applying the lessons learned about effective tobacco labelling policies to nutritional labels on menus. “To reduce obesity and the associated cancer risk, we need policies that will make healthy eating easier for consumers. Our evidence suggests that providing nutrition information on menus that is accessible and easy to understand is an effective way to do this,” he says.

Menu labelling legislation will become mandatory in the United States in 2015, and Ontario has introduced a bill to require calorie amounts to be posted in chain restaurants. “Our job is to get the best evidence we can about whether this policy works in changing consumers’ behaviour. If we find that menu labelling in Ontario results in consumers making healthier food choices, that will influence menu labelling and cancer control policies in other provinces and globally, as we saw with tobacco,” he says.

Do you find that reading nutritional labels impacts your eating? Was this helpful for you during your cancer experience? Join our recent discussion, and share what you ate during treatment. 


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