Eating healthy isn't just about the calorie count

JEAN MARBELLA

March 28, 2010

And now they're coming after our Chicken McNuggets Happy Meals (520 calories), our Venti Double Chocolatey Chip Frappuccinos with whipped cream (670 calories), our Unlimited Soup, Salad and Breadsticks (600 to infinity).

Is there no end to the government takeover of our health system? Apparently not, because there it is, in the massive health care reform bill that was just passed, hidden amid other abominations like banning insurance companies from denying coverage to sick children and closing a gap in the prescription drug program for the elderly:

In the case of food that is a standard menu item that is offered for sale in a restaurant ... that is part of a chain with 20 or more locations ... the restaurant or similar food establishment shall disclose in a clear and conspicuous manner ... the number of calories contained in the standard menu item.

And further: In the case of an article of food sold from a vending machine ... the vending machine operator shall provide a sign ... disclosing the number of calories contained in the article.

I know, it's an outrage: The government has become so intrusive that it wants to tell you how much caloric damage a Wendy's Baconator Triple will do (1,330 calories worth) because its name, not to mention the grease and mayo seeping through the bag, isn't enough of a clue.

"Where does it end?" thundered one talk show guest I saw on TV, crying nanny state over the provision. A provision, mind you, that doesn't ban Baconators but just makes sure that you know its costs not just in dollars but calories.

Maybe some opponents of the health care reform package need to oppose every last thing in the bill - along the lines of what Mary McCarthy once said of fellow writer Lillian Hellman, that "every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.' "

But, really? The nutritional labeling requirement struck me as, finally, after all the Sturm und Drang of the yearlong debate, the sole health care measure that a) the average person could understand and b) can act on, right now.

The massive reform measure necessarily focuses on insurance, tax credits, mandates and other macro issues, rather than the also-important micro issue of personal health - such as obesity, which has led to rising rates of illnesses such as diabetes and, in turn, rising health care costs.

Perhaps this speaks to my need of nannying, but I actually think, like much of the health care reforms, the nutritional labeling provision doesn't go far enough. Calories matter, but so do fat and - the real silent villain in restaurant food - sodium. And it's not just fast food, as anyone who has read any of those inside-restaurant tell-alls where chefs are always throwing in a stick of butter to "silken" up their sauces knows.

Still, posting calorie counts is a start, even if it's one that I suspect mostly will benefit the worried well - the already nutritionally vigilant who scan the labels at the grocery store in search of maximum dietary virtue and minimum evil. Meanwhile, there are those who, for any number of reasons, will look past any and all heart-stopping nutritional information and continue to supersize their fast food meals.

Two recent studies found as much when they looked at the effect of posting calorie counts at restaurants. The study that looked at Starbucks found that the postings led customers to order less-caloric items, while one that considered four fast food outlets in poor neighborhoods - McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and Kentucky Fried Chicken - found just the opposite.

Which brings up the real issue - the cost of eating more healthfully, at least at fast food restaurants. When you can buy five double burgers for the price of one salad, especially if you're trying to feed more than one person, it's not hard to figure out why the introduction of healthful choices doesn't necessarily lead to healthier decisions. If you're both hungry and shallow-pocketed, those five McDoubles are going to look like the better option.

To a country that barely got this health bill passed, fixing the whole economics of food production that results in cheap burgers and expensive salads is surely going to involve another monumental effort.

For now, maybe all we can hope to fix is what's on our own plates. If the idea of Fried Macaroni and Cheese doesn't repulse you for culinary reasons, maybe at 1,530 calories it will repulse you nutritionally.

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