Do You Really Want To Know?
So it was big news last summer when New York City started requiring chain restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus. There was much outcry amongst folks who felt such government regulation was intrusive, and cheers from health advocates who argued that such regulation was necessary, given the rising obesity rates, diabetes risks, etc., etc.
Skeptics have said these kind of laws won't help anyway, because people don't want the information and are just going to ignore it.
Now that the requirement has been in place for a while, guess what?
Intrusive or not, these regulations seem to be working. Calorie counts at restaurants are providing consumers with information they didn't know, and even changing the way they behave.
According to a recent survey on how calorie counts affect consumer behavior, 86 percent of restaurant patrons surveyed were surprised by the calorie count information. Eight two percent said it affected what they ordered, and sixty percent said knowing calorie information influenced which restaurants they'd visit. ("Honey, I know "McLardy's Big-Ass BurgerLand" is your favorite place, but have you seen the nutritional information on the Triple Bacon LardBurger SuperMeal? It's 236,047 calories!)
Note: I couldn't find a handy-dandy link to the survey methodology--so it could be an itty bitty survey done by someone's fourth grade class, or a great big survey done by serious scientists. I have to confess that discovering that there is anything that 86% of New Yorkers agree on is a bit of a shock.
Other cities are also enacting or considering such legislation, so we may see more of this in the future. Do you have an opinion on whether restaurants should be legally required to post calorie counts?
(That's the main reason I like to blog, after all--I've got more opinions than the Biggest Loser has product placements.)
But there are pro's and con's to regulation--and of course I'd love to know what you folks think.
Here's my take on the advantages and disadvantages of making restaurants display calorie information.
Reasons not to require restaurant menu regulation:
1. It's a Free Country! Generally, rather than require business establishments to do something that's good for us, it's nice if you can let the market decide to do the right thing on its own. This is an especially appealing argument if you think individuals are smarter than governments, which a lot of people do.
So in theory, if enough people want restaurants to provide calorie listings, then more people should patronize restaurants that have them. And then the restaurants that serve gargantuan 20,000 calorie dinners without telling anyone how bad they are for you will go out of business! (Tee hee. Giggle giggle. Laugh laugh laugh snort guffaw).
2. Focusing on Just Calories Is Misleading: Our health problems are only partly due to high-calorie/low exercise lifestyles. It's WHAT we eat that gets us in trouble. A big healthy meal full of fruits, vegetables, protein, fiber, and good fats may have more calories than an ice cream cone--but there are folks dumb enough to look at the calorie difference and feel like they're taking the high road by getting ice cream instead of lunch or dinner.
3. Don't F-ck With My Birthday Dinner. Some people dine out only on special occasions, and otherwise eat wisely and moderately. For these folks, having a menu rub one's face in the fact that a "Bloomin’ Onion" appetizer at Outback Steakhouse has over 2,000 calories could totally spoil the mood. There are definitely times when we Don't Want to Know.
4. The Information Is Out There For Those Who Want It. Those of us who actively try to avoid eating high calorie, fat-and-sugar packed Giganto Meals tend to avoid the sort of chain restaurants that are famous for them. But if we do decide to go, we tend to: (a) use common sense, (b) ask if they've got a pamphlet with nutritional information, or (c) look on the web ahead of time to a site like Calorie Lab, which has a huge compilation of nutritional information. (Calorie Lab is also the home of one of our favorite commenters, Dr. J.). People who care enough to educate themselves are less likely to "accidentally" eat a 4,000 calorie dinner.
5. Calorie Counts Are Often Wrong. In real-life tests, it's been shown that often restaurants under-report calories of their supposed "healthy' meals. And it's not necessarily just to be Evil. In an interview about the difficulties of enforcing New York's calorie law, an employee at Nathan's said: "My small fries look like medium fries and my medium fries look like large fries... I figure if they're paying $7 for a meal, people want to get their money's worth. I've got extra bacon in the salads, extra everything."
Reasons we should require restaurant menus to post calorie information:
Sorry, this is a shorter list.
1. Because Chain Restaurant Portion Sizes Are INSANE and Most People Are Either Willfully Ignorant, Dumb As Rocks, or In Total Denial About How Stupid Their Choices Are.
That's why I think restaurant patrons need those damn calorie counts staring them in the face, however flawed a measurement of nutritional worth they may be. If we were a fit and healthy nation, my opinion might be totally different. But we're not.
Nanny State? Bring it on! We don't let drug stores sell hard drugs, even though I suspect if we left it to the free market, they'd be a crack cocaine display at every Walgreens. If we, as a population, are going to act like selfish clueless babies and kill ourselves with gratuitous calories, we indeed need Menu Nannies to at least let us know we're being childish.
(And no one is trying to regulate what you order--they just to make the information you need to make healthy choices more available.)
Since I was too lazy to post more than one reason in support of my opinion that hell yes let's make them put nutritional information on the menus, you may want some additional convincing. As it happens, Lynn of Lynn's Weigh has a similar post with a lot more in the way of actual arguments and research on this topic. And over at Thufferin' Thuccotash, POD has a tale of an evening at Marie Callendar's that's quite amusing. And Hungry Girl has one of those shocking roundups of typical chain meals and how much worse for you they are than you thought.
So what do you folks think: should restaurants be required to post calorie counts or other nutritional information? Do you think it would affect your food choices when eating out?