BOSTON — Calorie counting on menus has significantly reduced obesity-related cancer deaths in the United States since their introduction four years ago, according to new research. Gaining excessive weight has an association with 13 forms of cancer, including those originating in the bowel or gallbladder. Estimates by researchers at Tufts University show that diners in the U.S. now avoid consuming 20 to 60 calories per meal, a reduction significant enough to prevent 28,000 cancer cases and 16,700 deaths, while saving the U.S. economy an astounding $2.8 billion in healthcare costs.
“It is important for us to continue demonstrating to consumers, policymakers, and the industry how small changes can lead to significant benefits. Our population-level view suggests that these labels can be associated with substantial health gains and cancer-related healthcare cost savings that could be doubled with additional industry response, such as replacing high-calorie menu items with lower-calorie options or reformulating recipes,” says lead author Mengxi Du, a doctoral student at Tufts University, according to a statement from SWNS.
Mandatory calorie labeling on menus started at U.S. restaurant chains with over 20 branches in 2018. The study conducted by Du and the team was based on national nutritional survey data and cancer statistics gathered from individuals 20 and older in 2015 and 2016.
Restaurant meals account for a fifth of calories consumed by adults and often contain added sugars and saturated fats. Obesity-related cancers represent approximately 40 percent of all newly diagnosed cases and almost half of cancer care costs. Encouraging people to make healthy food choices at home and while dining out is increasingly viewed by researchers and policymakers as a cancer prevention strategy.
The researchers’ computer model found the greatest health gains and net savings among younger individuals between the ages of 20 and 44, who are experiencing a disproportionate rise in obesity-associated cancers.
“People with higher education or income levels are aware of the information in menu labels and how to understand it, but we need to invest more effort into education among under-represented, low-income, or at-risk communities because we still see some disparities. I think people would appreciate seeing calorie numbers when they go to a restaurant—even if menus don’t provide comprehensive nutrition information, it helps us all make quick calculations about the food we’re about to purchase,” Du says, according to SWNS.
“From this research, we can see how labeling policies that effectively encourage consumers to make healthier dietary decisions are a form of cancer prevention—they reduce an individual’s chances of being obese and getting an obesity-associated cancer while improving their quality of life. These policies don’t require significant spending, especially when compared to cancer screening costs, but provide numerous benefits,” adds senior author Professor Fang Fang Zhang.
“Using the best available estimates, our study further suggested that the federal menu calorie labelling policy is cost-effective in the short term and cost saving in the long term in reducing obesity-associated cancer burdens,” the study authors conclude in a media release.
The study is published in BMJ Open.
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.