Calories: what counts

To fight obesity, Maryland restaurants should be required to disclose nutrition info

March 03, 2010|By Scott Kahan

Last week, I testified in the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates in support of legislation that would require restaurants to post calories alongside prices on menu boards, similar to the laws in New York City and elsewhere. Polls show that customers want this information, and studies show consumers will use it to make healthier choices. Now even the restaurant industry claims to support calorie-disclosure requirements.

That's why I doubt the Maryland bill will pass.

Let me explain. I have testified at several of these hearings over the years and closely followed others throughout the country. Each time, the restaurant industry finds unique ways to obfuscate the science and facts to thwart the bills. Consider a few of their claims as part of these smoke-and-mirrors tactics:

•Physical activity, not food intake, is to blame for obesity. (Studies show the opposite.)

•Calorie posting will not work. (Studies show that patrons order 50-300 fewer calories when given calorie information. Decreasing intake by just 100 calories per day is enough to stop weight gain in most of the population.)

•Posting calories would cost too much. (Though they were willing to install computer kiosks with nutrition information in every restaruant - a far greater expense.)

•Consumers don't want it. (A 2005 industry-backed national poll showed 83 percent of Americans want restaurants to provide nutrition information, and 90 percent of New Yorkers consider calorie posting an overwhelmingly positive move.)

•They are already doing it. (Yes - ineffectively. In one study, just six out of 4,311 patrons accessed nutritional information as currently provided in restaurants. McDonald's, under testimony, acknowledged that just 1 in 25,000 customers access its Web site for nutrition information.)

•Such a law violates their First Amendment rights. (This was struck down by the United States Circuit Court for New York).

•Finally, my favorite: A few years ago, one lobbyist argued that the obesity epidemic doesn't even exist. (Not worthy of comment.)

And the restaurant industry wins nearly every time.

The Maryland Restaurant Association testified that it supports the content of the bill. The industry said it's a great piece of legislation that Maryland citizens deserve. But, it argued, since there is a national calorie posting law pending as part of the health reform bill, we should just wait until that one is signed into law. This makes little sense unless you are the restaurant industry, using every tool available to delay menu labeling.

Getting nutrition information to consumers is too important to wait for a health reform bill that may never happen. If the federal bill doesn't pass, I can only imagine what other masterful arguments the restaurant association will use to thwart a future bill.

Posting calories on menu boards is a simple, cheap and effective way to help us help ourselves. The purpose is not to force us to eat healthier or scare us out of eating unhealthy foods. Rather, it will help us navigate restaurant menus when we do want to make healthier choices.

Nutritional rules of thumb go out the window in most restaurants: The supposedly heart-healthy fish sandwich often has more calories that the steak sandwich; salads can have three times as many calories as the burgers and fries; the milkshake has more calories than the burger, fries and large soda, combined.

How could we possibly know this? I am an expert in nutrition and obesity, yet I find it difficult to accurately assess the calorie content of restaurant foods. Studies show that even dieticians consistently underestimate by as much as 50 percent.

Once restaurants are forced to deal with the "sticker shock" of posting calories, many subtly alter recipes to decrease calories without sacrificing taste. For example, Cosi's chief nutritionist found it could reduce its club sandwich from 800 to 450 calories just by switching to low-fat mayonnaise.

This law will not cure obesity, but it will make an impact. Waiting for a national bill is just another excuse. For every year we wait, Marylanders accumulate tens of millions of pounds and spend hundreds of millions on medications and other obesity-related costs, and many will die from obesity-related diseases.

Dr. Scott Kahan is a physician on the faculty of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. His email is skahan@ jhu.edu.

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