Look at those calories!
Ignorance is Bliss
I'll admit it: I'm a sucker for ice cream and in the summer I occasionally like to walk the four blocks to Steak 'n Shake to have the signature meal: a hamburger, fries, and a chocolate shake. I always knew this was not exactly a healthy meal, but the hamburgers are reasonable and I don't overload on fries. Not bad every once in a while, right? I had purposely avoided nutritional information about that incredible, rich, creamy chocolate shake and for good reason. One day, my wife mentioned that she heard a large chocolate shake there was almost 1000 calories. Could this be true? The chocolate shake actually comes in at 900 calories and my other favorite, the Butterfinger shake comes in at... (yikes) 1100 calories.
Knowledge is Power
I haven't had a Butterfinger shake since. One overlooked component of the new health care reform regulations is that all restaurants with more than twenty locations will soon be required to post calorie information right there on the menu. No longer will we be able to pretend that we're making healthy choices when we're not. That 1100 calorie shake will be staring you right in the face. Will I still order it occasionally? Probably, but I'll do so knowing the consequences. I'll be inclined to work out a little longer or make 'extra-healthy' choices the rest of the week.
Shine a Light
Another effect of posting calorie amounts directly on the menu is that restaurants will either have to be clear about the calorie contents of their foods or change their content to be a little healthier. Starbucks recently switched from whole milk to 2% in many beverages, largely due to NY regulations requiring posted calorie content in restaurants. Burger King has for years heavily advertised with pride their huge, calorie-rich meals. They have now recently introduced a low-calorie meal plan. Dunkin' Donuts now features an egg white veggie flatbread.
Of course, while these regulations will encourage restaurants to modify their menus to be a little healthier, we are ultimately responsible for the choices we make. One of the most frustrating aspects of our current situation is the 'better' choice is not always clear. Sometimes a salad is not the healthiest option on a menu. The choice is rarely between an apple and a double cheeseburger with extra bacon. It's more often a choice between two items that seem similar but often have significant differences in calories and other nutritional content. Without access to basic information, the choices seem arbitrary and can sabotage our best efforts to choose a healthier lifestyle.
in the future, when we give thanks for the hands that prepared our food, we will be a little more informed about what they have actually prepared for us. Millions of people making better choices from improved menus could have a dramatic impact on our nation's health over time. I'm looking forward to these new menus!
Matthew Ellis serves as executive director of National Episcopal Health Ministries (NEHM).