By Michael Crupain, MD, MPH
Recently Michelle Obama held a press conference at an Olive Garden restaurant in Maryland. She was there to announce that Darden Restaurant Inc, which owns the Olive Garden, Red Lobster, as well as other chains, had signed on to make their menus healthier as part of the Let’s Move Campaign.
The group will adopt a number of strategies to improve the health of the food they serve; they will reduce calories and sodium by 10% in the next 5 years and reduce it by another 10% in the preceding five years; make fruits and vegetables the default option for sides in kids meals; and make low fat milk the default option for kids beverages. In addition, they state that soda will not be promoted, menus will promote healthy choices, and the nutritional values of children’s menus will be improved.
The most meaningful part of the plan is probably the change of default options for kids meal sides, to fruits and vegetables and eliminating any push for sodas. While parents will still be able to order less healthy items for their kids, studies show that people tend to stick with their default choices.
Changing default options in the food environment is a great way to increase healthy eating. If it becomes easier and more automatic for people to eat a salad for lunch rather than a burger or a piece of fruit for a snack rather than a bag of chips than health will improve. This concept of the power of changing defaults is well illustrated by the prevalence of people consenting to organ donation in different countries depending on whether people have to “opt-in” or “opt-out” to donate. In those countries where one has to “opt-in” participation rates are very low. However in those countries where one has to “opt-out” participation nears 100%. So if people automatically get broccoli instead of fries, they are going to be more likely to eat the broccoli.
Another important way to change defaults is to offer smaller/lower calorie portions. The Darden group has also signed onto this; however, their pledge in this area is less impressive. First of all 5-10 years is a long time. While I am sure it not easy for a restaurant group of this size to make menu changes quickly, its hard to believe they can’t do it faster than they have pledged to.
Also, if you review the menu at the Olive Garden, you will quickly discover that it is easy to have a meal there in which you would consume of 3000 calories, which is about 1000 more calories than is required for the entire day for the average person. A 10 or 20 percent reduction in calories, would therefore still mean that people would be likely to consume over an entire day’s work of calories in a single sitting. And just one serving from the available unlimited salad and breadsticks offer has 500 calories.
Overall this move by Darden Restaurants represents a step in the right direction. Changes in such a large chain have the ability to make an impact on the population and hopefully this move will encourage other businesses to follow suit and improve our food environment.