I Am Indignant: Don’t Nanny Law Me! I Want That Brownie

I am grateful for so many things about this country, things like free speech, freedom of religion, and our general prosperity (and relative to the rest of the world, we are prosperous even in our current economic crisis). I’m grateful for electricity 24 hours a day, indoor plumbing, and the more-or-less consistent availability of hot water. I’m grateful for supermarkets whose shelves are always stocked with more food than any of us will ever eat. And then there are the things we used to have that I wish I could still be grateful for, like anti-trust laws and an objective judiciary. But I digress. I do appreciate many aspects of life in this country. What I don’t appreciate is the tendency of the government of this free nation to get involved in our private lives in the name of public interest.

The social contract, of course, requires the government to act in the public interest, but its methods are occasionally overly intrusive. Sometimes we compromise because, after all, it makes sense that motorcyclists should wear helmets (although apparently the availability of donor organs decreased dramatically when those laws began to be enforced). But should government have a say in what we feel like eating? Recent public health measures in New York City aim to do just that, and I have to say, I resent it.

First, New York banned the use of artificial trans fats in all foods sold in restaurants.Yes, we all agree that trans fats are bad and an unnecessary element in any diet. And of course, the food industry would not have changed its recipes without government intervention. Fine. But earlier this summer, a new regulation began to be enforced that requires any restaurant that makes nutritional information public and uses standardized recipes to prominently post the calorie counts of all menu items. For those of you who live in cities with less meddlesome administrations, that means that when you walk into a Starbucks for a mocha frappucino fix, you see exactly how many calories are in that mocha frappucino (280 in the tall size). Not to mention how many calories are in the chocolate chunk cookie that you might have thought about getting to go with it (420).

The justification for making all this information, not just public, but unavoidably prominent, is that it will help guide informed and healthier food choices in a public that is suffering under an obesity epidemic. For now, the regulation applies only to restaurants with 15 or more outlets nationwide, with menus that are standardized for content and portion size. It specifically targets fast food and casual dining chains, which make up about 10% of the restaurants in the city. Apparently, even Mayor Michael Bloomberg doesn’t want to know how many calories are in that plate of foie gras at Per Se.

So, the goal, ultimately is to reduce obesity by making people aware of the number of calories they’re consuming when they go to these kinds of restaurants. According to a Health Department survey conducted in support of this regulation, people in Subway restaurants who saw the information consumed about 50 fewer calories than those who didn’t. And I can honestly say that the first time I walked into a Starbucks and was confronted by the fact that a blueberry scone has about twice as many calories as a plain croissant, I went for the croissant. I guess it works to a certain extent. I admit this grudgingly, of course, not because I’m opposed to an informed public, but because I object to the method of dissemination. I am not a “latte lady” who needs a daily Starbucks fix. Generally, when I go into one of these places, I do it specifically to indulge. So, when my monthly chocolate chunk cookie craving rolls around, I don’t particularly care to know the extent to which I am indulging. Plus, I’d be willing to bet that the people who are most likely to notice this stuff are the ones least likely to be in danger of becoming obese anyway.

One of the main arguments against this kind of regulation is that it is paternalistic. While everyone agrees that government should act in the public interest, there is very little agreement as to the extent to which it should act. By promoting this kind of policy, the City of New York is taking another step down a potentially slippery slope toward the dreaded “nanny state” in which no one can smoke outside their own home and children sit in car seats until they’re old enough to drive. I am all for acting in the public interest, but is this kind of action the best use of government time and taxpayer money? If the Health Department wants to fight the obesity crisis, why not invest in educating the public? Sure, by forcing the prominent posting of calorie counts, they’re informing the public, but that’s not quite the same thing, is it?

Just because I now know that the average full-size salad at California Pizza Kitchen has well over 1000 calories doesn’t mean I have any idea how much of that is fat or sugar in relation to the BBQ chicken pizza (1060 calories). Nor does it tell me anything about how it really relates to my personal health. The nutrition information on packaged foods is based on a 2000-calorie diet, which is the recommended daily intake for the average person. The “average person” weighs about 150 pounds. I am not average, and, frankly, I have no clue what my ideal caloric intake actually is. I eat salad when I feel like eating salad and French fries when I feel like eating French fries. I live with the hope that it will ultimately all balance out. But aside from knowing that the average adult should eat about 2000 calories a day, to me, all these numbers are just numbers. Combine them with all the other information on a chain restaurant’s menu, and they just blend in with the visual noise.

Instead of posting calorie counts in chain restaurants, teach us what calorie counts really mean. Introduce real education programs, starting in schools, that not only emphasize the importance of a healthy diet, but show children that it means different things for different people and why. Make a few PSAs asking people to think about what they eat or giving them tips on how to improve their diets. Better yet, address the root of the problem by confronting the food industry itself about portion sizes or the ingredients that go into packaged foods or the way they advertise. Sure, that yogurt is low-fat, but have you noticed how much sugar is in it? Nothing needs as much high fructose corn syrup as it has, especially considering that it’s been proven to be a factor in increasing obesity, and it’s in almost everything we eat. And that 1000-calorie salad at California Pizza Kitchen is a full-size order, but I’ve never been able to finish even a half order at that place. Of course, all that introduces a much deeper issue when you consider how much easier it is for the government to create “nanny laws” than to regulate industry. It’s a simple thing to say, “Yeah, show “˜em a bunch of numbers and maybe they’ll realize they’re eating too much.” It’s a much more complex matter when you mention that there are an awful lot of junk food commercials on during popular cartoon shows, and that they make eating look so fun.

Who knows, maybe this is one of those bass-ackward ways of forcing corporations to take some responsibility. Maybe it will have some long-term positive effect on people’s eating habits. More likely, after the initial sticker shock wears off, people will stop noticing and go back to eating whatever they would have initially. As for me, after I saw how many calories are in a Starbucks chocolate chip cookie, I walked out of the store and across the street to a gourmet chocolate shop where I purchased a cookie that was about the size of my open hand. It was warm, full of huge gooey chunks of rich homemade chocolate, not to mention sugar, butter, and fat, but, as far as I could tell, it was completely calorie free.

“LineUp” Courtesy of Loretta Lopez

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