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Information: The New Weight-Loss Drug

Research shows that nutritional information about fast food inspires parents to make healthier choices for their kids.

McDonald's Cheeseburger: 300 calories. Small Fries: 230 Calories. One percent Low Fat Chocolate Milk Jug: 170 Calories. Watching your child gain 10 pounds in one year? Priceless.

It's no secret that childhood obesity in America is on the rise. Nor is it surprising that this rise has been paralleled by a growth in the nation's fast-food consumption. But a new study led by Pooja S. Tandon from Seattle Children's Research Institute suggests a new item for Happy Meals: information. She found that parents provided with calorie information on a fast-food menu chose meals for their children with an average of 102 fewer calories than parents without the facts.

The findings, published online in Pediatrics on Jan. 25, indicate that nutritionally informed parents may make healthier choices for their kids.

The researchers surveyed 99 parents of 3- to 6-year-olds who sometimes eat in fast-food restaurants about their fast-food dining habits. They presented the parents with sample McDonald's menus featuring product pictures and prices, and asked them to choose a "typical meal" for themselves and their children. The menus included most McDonald's fare, including a variety of sandwiches, sides, drinks and desserts. Half the parents received menus with clearly visible calorie information, and half did not.

The parents who were given the calorie information chose 20 percent fewer calories for their children — 102 on average — than parents without the information on their menus. Tandon suggests that even small calorie adjustments on a regular basis can prevent weight gain, and an extra 100 calories a day could add up to 10 pounds in a year.

"Interestingly, by simply providing parents the caloric information, they chose lower calorie items. This is encouraging, and suggests that parents do want to make wise food choices for their children, but they need help," Tandon was quoted in a release.

Nutritional information didn't, however, lead parents to make smarter food choices for themselves. There wasn't any difference in the calorie counts of the meals parents picked for themselves between the two groups.

This reinforces earlier research suggesting that healthy choices on a menu might actually cause some people to choose less-healthy foods. It seems that putting a salad on the menu erodes some people's ability to choose, for example, a not-so-bad-for-you baked potato over saturated-fat-laden fries.

But even if calorie counts help parents make better choices for their children, a study published earlier this month shows that the counts themselves may be off by as much as 200 percent. On average, Tufts University researchers found that restaurant menu calorie counts were 18 percent lower than the actual calorie content of the food.

So while nutritional menu labeling may help parents select better meals for their children, it's important to keep in mind that the numbers might not be exact (or even close).

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