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Restaurants and their place in a healthy diet

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Restaurant and Foodservice

Restaurants have been moving forward with efforts to make meals healthier and provide guests with the nutritional information they need to make better food choices, despite the Food and Drug Administration’s ongoing delay in issuing final rules on exactly what nutrition information chains with 20 or more locations will need to put on their menus.

“Implementation of this portion of the Affordable Care Act of 2010 is now officially one year overdue, and may be another six months out,” wrote MenuTrinfo’s Betsy Craig in a QSRWeb blog post this week that detailed the delays, which most recently center on the debate over whether convenience stores should be held to the same standards as restaurant chains.

The post was one of several recent pieces that focused on restaurants, healthy dining and America’s obesity problem, including a Rand Corp. report that analyzed nutrition information at 245 restaurants from the top 400 U.S. chains. Researchers found that 96% of the dishes tested exceeded USDA recommendations for the amount of calories, sugar, fat and saturated fat people should consume in a single meal. The data were collected from menus and nutrition information posted on the restaurants’ websites from February to May 2010.

Those numbers probably weren’t such a big deal in the days when more of us enjoyed restaurant meals as special-occasion treats and we could balance a few indulgent meals with a more sensible diet the rest of the time. But balancing the diet became tougher as dining out evolved into an integral part of our lives.

T.J. Jacobberger, general manager of The Tavern at Lark Creek and a San Francisco Chronicle blogger, concluded that his industry bears part of the responsibility for the nation’s expanding waistlines by virtue of the role it plays in people’s daily lives.

“We have created a culture around the consumption of food and beverage,” he wrote last week. “…Whether it’s a business lunch or dinner with friends, people are dining out more than they ever have before. People are consuming more food and beverage than ever before. We have made food and beverage a social must for any type of get-together, from sporting events to book clubs.”

Another recent study — that found finances were leading a significant number of consumers to dine out less often — included a list of the reasons people gave for choosing a restaurant and, while 56% of people said healthy menu items were a factor, that quality came in behind a host of other factors including convenience, variety and price, according to a story in Pizza Marketplace.

Finally, the jury’s still out on restaurant chains’ efforts to create healthier kids’ menus, Forbes contributor Carol Tice wrote this week. More than 100 chains have joined the National Restaurant Association’s Kids LiveWell program since it launched, but it’s unclear whether their efforts to promote healthier, less fattening alternatives are finding traction among young consumers. “As high-minded as they’d like to be, there’s a basic rule in the restaurant business: Menu real estate is valuable, and you don’t keep offering items customers don’t want.”