Will Restaurants' Posting Nutrition Info Help Fight Obesity?
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was all smiles last week as he signed legislation making his state the first to require chain restaurants (such as Chili's and the like) to post nutrition data about the foods they serve on menus and on signs inside the restaurants.
The law is intended to help fight obesity by giving customers information they need to make smarter food choices. A like-minded law went into effect in New York City this spring. (Here's what some folks polled by SELF magazine had to say about how that law has -- or hasn't -- affected their eating habits.) Various cities, states and counties -- including the District of Columbia and Montgomery County -- across the country are mulling similar measures. And in late September, two U.S. Senators introduced a bill calling for a national requirement and standards for restaurant-food labeling, much like the packaged-food labeling system that's been in place for decades (which I write about in today's "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" nutrition column in the Health section); a comparable bill was introduced in the House last week. The National Restaurant Association would prefer that blanket approach to the piecemeal one now underway.
I am a big fan of information. But I'm not yet convinced that these programs are going to make a dent in the nation's obesity program.
Those of us who eat at chain restaurants (and we probably all do once in a while) have a pretty good idea that a plate of spare ribs dripping in barbecue sauce is likely to have more calories and fat than, say, a plate of grilled chicken prepared at home, where you can decide what you add. Now, it may help to know the calorie counts of alternative salad dressings or of grilled as opposed to fried chicken. But if it's ribs you're hankering for, how likely are you to be swayed to choose otherwise by the calorie count on the menu?
The requirement that restaurants post nutrition data in order to keep people from getting fat suggests to me that if people had enough information about what they're putting in their mouths, they'd make wise choices more often. Maybe that works sometimes: I can imagine going to a restaurant, choosing the plate of ribs in full knowledge of how many calories they contain, and then budgeting the rest of my daily calories accordingly. (Here's some useful information from the National Restaurant Association about making good food choices while eating out.)
But there's lots and lots of information about food and calories and fat and salt out there, and so far it doesn't seem to be helping people lose weight on a grand scale.
I will be eager to see, after these new laws have some time to have an impact on eating habits, whether there is a downtick in obesity.
In the meantime, I think the onus should be on individuals to be realistic. We all know, deep in our hearts, what kinds of food -- fruits, vegetables, lean meat and fish, low-fat dairy, lots of whole grains and fiber -- are good for us. And we all know, deep in our hearts, that the plate of ribs, though delicious and wonderful as a once-in-a-while treat, isn't likely on that list.
Where do you fall on this issue? Do you think we need nutrition data posted in restaurants?
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