Wellness Forum: Talking calories

Grocers can help consumers get a better handle on how much they are eating.

By Cary Silvers

Americans have a curious relationship with calories. Almost everyone understands what they mean to our waistlines and almost no one has a clear idea of how many they consume. How can we know so much about the effects of calories and pay so little attention to how many we consume? In Prevention Magazine’s/FMI Shopping for Health study, 60% of principal shoppers say the amount of calories on a label is important to them, while only 9% actively count what they consume.

Calories have always been an important concern for shoppers and they will soon get a boost from the new health care reform bill. This legislation will require chain restaurants with 20 or more locations to include calorie counts on menus, menu boards and drive-throughs. The Food and Drug Administration will have a year to write the new rules, which will supersede local laws in places such as New York, Philadelphia and California. In the survey, 47% of consumers said they would change their ordering habits in restaurants that display calorie counts. This figure is astonishing, as most consumers have not seen calorie counts posted in restaurants.

The effects will go far beyond what consumers order at restaurants. Studies have already shown calorie posting in restaurants does influence consumer choices at non-posting restaurants. It would not be a big leap to say that this heightened level of calorie consciousness will spill into the grocery aisles.

How off are shoppers regarding their calorie intake? According to the study, the majority of consumers believe they consume less than 2,000 calories per day. If this were true, obesity rates would significantly decline and one could predict an explosion of skinny jean sales.

Many shoppers greatly underestimate how many calories they consume, and the disconnect shows up at every meal as well as snacks.

Breakfast: While 60% say they consume 300 or fewer calories, a bagel with low- fat cream cheese is 460 calories.

Lunch: Although a turkey sandwich on whole wheat with no mayonnaise is 480 calories, 61% say they eat between 300 and 500 calories.

Snack: In between meals, 74% say they consume 300 or fewer calories, while four chocolate chip cookies are 640 calories.

Dinner: While 65% acknowledge that they eat 500 or more calories, a quarter of a chicken and sides is 640 calories.

There is a big opportunity to help your customers stay within the boundaries of proper calorie counts. Portion control at each meal is critical, as 60% say they cut down portion size without any measuring or weighing. We are a nation of guessers.

This is a good time to tie in calorie control to all meal solutions and recipes you display. Remember, many chain restaurants with take out menus offering quick dinner solutions will be posting calorie counts.

Retailers can offer meal and snacking solutions in almost any aisle. How about some best bet dinners with recommended portion sizes at various calorie levels 400, 500, or 600 so shoppers can select the level that best works for them. Every week this can be updated and rotated so your shoppers can choose from new meal ideas that give them a better opportunity to control their weight.  Unlike chain restaurants, your menu/recipe offerings can change often. You have an opportunity to move your shoppers from poor guessers to better managers of their calorie intake, and their waistlines will thank you.

Cary Silvers is director of consumer insights for Rodale. He can be reached at cary.silvers@rodale.com.

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