Metrics and Obesity: Potential for Change

Over the weekend, The Wall Street Journal made an interesting insight that alludes to an intriguing realization – the obesity epidemic may be linked to more than a surplus of fast food restaurants and a sedentary lifestyle. In all the years that I have spent teaching people to read food labels and monitor their intake, I never thought about how complex and foreign the metric system is to a majority of the U.S. population.

If you think about it, weight management programs advise clients with visual cues that equate to ounces, cups, tablespoons and teaspoons. For example, a three-ounce serving of lean meat is about the size of a woman’s fist or a deck of cards, an ounce of cheese is about the size of the tip of your thumb and you only need a tablespoon of salad dressing or three-fourths cup of dry cereal. Your mind’s eye can grasp these visual cues, but how do you know if that tablespoon of dressing is wrecking your diet because it has 25 grams of sugar per serving? What visual does 25 grams conjure up for the average consumer?

There have always been advocates for making metrics the official measurement system of the United States, but as the years have ticked by, Americans have held onto English units of measurement. The only victory for these scientists was in 1970, when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) designed the first food label and chose the metric system.

As a consumer this has made interpreting the side of any box as complicated as reading a foreign language.  In 2010, Consumer World, a consumer information site, conducted a survey. Respondents were presented with two identical nutrition labels, except one listed the sugar content as 25 grams and the other as 6 teaspoons.  The results of the survey are indicative of what may happen to a majority of consumers staring blankly at a nutrition label – less than 50 percent of those polled had any idea the two quantities were equivalent and most perceived the 25 grams to be healthier.

In 1993, the FDA redesigned the label, but missed a very crucial edit – converting metrics to English units.  Spokesmen for the FDA say that grams and milligrams were chosen over ounces and teaspoons to avoid complex fractions, especially when describing light weight food items like sugar and salt. Nonetheless, the FDA is considering a redesign, but exactly what changes you may see are still under review.

Now the question is – would a label change impact the tragic state of health in the U.S.?

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