Slim health facts can’t hide expanding waistlines

September 3, 2009

Of the various health care bills currently floating around the House and Senate, the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) wrote the one with the most name recognition. The Affordable Health Choices Act calls for many necessary improvements to the health care system, but one of its potentially most effective ideas is the requirement that restaurant chains post nutritional information on their menus. Whichever health care bill eventually becomes law, this particular stipulation must be included to control the restaurant industry’s unchecked tendency to offer growing portion sizes with astonishing amounts of calories.  It’s the best shot at giving consumers a fair chance to eat healthfully, and preventing future generations from succumbing to the obesity epidemic.
Seeing obesity rates rise 17 percent from 2002-2004, New York City decided to require restaurants with fifteen or more locations to put nutrition information directly onto menus or menu boards in 2008. The HELP committee’s bill would bump that number up to twenty locations, covering most fast food and restaurant chains.
Anyone who walks into a Five Guys set on ordering a bacon cheeseburger and fries probably won’t be shocked, or dissuaded, by how many calories the meal contains. But when restaurants promote some menu items as a healthier choice, when in reality they are as bad, if not worse, than a double cheeseburger, something needs to be done. At The Cheesecake Factory, for example, it is not difficult to believe that the Beer Battered Fish and Chips has 2100 calories. More surprising? The vegetarian options—grilled eggplant or portabella mushroom sandwich—both pack in over 1000 calories. Either sandwich may be healthier than fish and chips, but healthy at half a day’s worth of calories in one meal is a stretch. Posting the nutrition information on the menu might force restaurants to make these their healthy choices actually nutritious.
The Cheesecake Factory is a well-known example of the business model of many chain restaurants—gigantic portion sizes draw customers in as a novelty, and the extra food costs are negligible compared to overhead costs. Like any other industry, restaurants are after sales. Because larger chains have the ability to buy more food at cheaper, bulk costs, they can create the biggest, tastiest meal possible to keep the customer coming back. If doubling the portion or adding extra fats and sugars will bring people in for more, restaurants will go for it. There isn’t an incentive to make truly reasonable food unless people start asking for it; currently, a sizable proportion of the population doesn’t care, leading to higher obesity rates. And those that try to eat healthy can be misled by false advertising.
Posting nutrition facts on menus wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, make everyone suddenly start counting calories. But if sales at a chain suddenly nosedive because people realize the foods they thought were healthy actually aren’t, then the restaurants will be forced to make healthier food.  According to the Wall Street Journal, Cosi found a way to make its club sandwich 447 calories, down from the 800 it had been before having to post nutrition information in its New York City establishments.
Other chains have made similar adjustments, and if required nationwide, more would likely do the same. Short of making high-calorie dishes illegal, posting nutrition information on menus is the most effective option for combating irresponsible restaurant industry practices, and slowly reducing the obesity rate. We may have the right to eat however many calories we want, but we should also have the right to see exactly how many that may be. On the path to universal health care, it’s clear that one of the most expensive health care issues and leading causes of preventable death—obesity—is a problem that anyone paying taxes, and therefore supporting the health care needs of the American people, needs to be concerned with.

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