"We, on average in Los Angeles, eat out four times a week, and we spend more than 40 percent of our food budget on meals away from home," said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of the public health department. "This is a great way to expand choices when dining out to reduce caloric consumption and to have healthier choices available."
The program, which is called Choose Health LA Restaurants, is part of a larger push by the county to educate the public on the benefits of healthier food choices and physical activity.
Restaurants that meet county guidelines for the program will receive a decal with the Choose Health LA Restaurants designation. They will also eventually be included in listings and maps at the Choose Health LA website.
To qualify, restaurants must have a minimum number of smaller-sized entrees that contain the same ingredients but weigh at least one-third less than their full-sized counterparts. The number of smaller offerings they must offer depends on the total number of items on their menus.
A handful of restaurants have already qualified to be part of the program. The largest is Subway, which offers half-sized versions of its sandwiches.
The county has provided a worksheet to determine whether restaurants are eligible to be part of the free program. It also offers consultation services for restaurant owners interested in qualifying for the program.
In addition to the smaller menu items, restaurants that want to make the list must have kids' meals must offer fruit and vegetable options, as well as milk or soy-based drinks.
Some nutrition experts say that while the program is a step in the right direction, it may not be as successful at curbing obesity as efforts at educating the public on how to eat.
"Even when healthy choices are offered at a restaurant, often you're stress eating, or your food urges take over, and you go for the higher calorie, tastier dishes anyway," said Dr. David Heber, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at UCLA. "So you might be offered a salad at a fast food restaurant, but you're probably going to go for the burger and fries."
Fielding said that the new program is just part of a larger county effort to educate the public.
"There's no single approach that's going to solve that problem, but there are a lot of small things, and this is one that we think could be very important over the long term," he said.
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