Bringing Calories Out of Hiding
There’s no telling how many calories the restaurant industry has expended running away from New York’s pioneering attempt to improve the city’s health by requiring chain eateries to prominently display calorie information. Fortunately, the city health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Frieden, shows no sign of relenting as he pushes the industry and consumers toward acting responsibly.
After losing a legal challenge on a first attempt last month, the city has retooled its proposal. Responding to court concerns, the city would apply the new rules to only 10 percent of city restaurants — those that are part of a chain with 15 or more outlets nationwide and have standardized menus, like Dunkin’ Donuts, Burger King and McDonald’s. That should minimize the burden on businesses but still help a lot of diners make better- informed choices about what to eat.
The big chains fighting the city might take a cue from Subway. The sandwich maker is using calorie counts as a marketing tool and a way to build on its reputation as a more healthful fast-food alternative. It has voluntarily posted calories where customers can easily see them, usually on the menu board. A Health Department survey of 7,000 people who lunched at other chain restaurants found that nearly all the customers never saw calorie information, which has usually been consigned to small print on place mats or online. Those diners were left to guess, or rather to underguess — by an average 600 calories per meal.
In fighting an epidemic of obesity, Dr. Frieden has correctly focused on chain food establishments that can quickly serve up a meal carrying a good chunk of an average adult’s daily caloric requirement, about 2,000 calories. The bargain-priced food appeals especially to lower-income residents, who are most likely to lack access to health care that might diagnose and treat the chronic conditions linked to obesity, including diabetes, heart disease and hypertension.
If the city is correct, as many as 150,000 fast-food eaters could avoid obesity. That depends, of course, on individual behavior. Dr. Frieden and Mayor Michael Bloomberg are counting on the same kind of success they have had with the smoking ban in public places, which has helped to lower the number of adult smokers by almost 20 percent. It is perfectly fair to expect chain restaurants to know and share information about what they serve, especially for the sake of good health.