Healthcare Reform Plan Calorie Count May Change American Diets

The way to fight obesity is to put the facts, not taxes, in people’s faces.

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By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street blog 

My beef with the healthcare bill is that it's not fiscally responsible, that it creates a nearly trillion-dollar new entitlement program that doesn't pay for itself. On the substance of it, there are parts that aren't so bad. As the parent of a 14-year-old with type 1 diabetes, I like the fact that she can no longer be denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition, and that she can stay on our policy until she's 26 (we were very worried about both when she leaves for college in a few years). Similarly, I'm glad pregnant women can no longer be denied because of their pre-existing condition, which happened to me once. But I still think the bill should be paid for in the long run. 

Here's something else buried in those 2,000 pages of text: according to the AP, the law includes a requirement that restaurant chains with more than 20 locations have to post the calorie count next to items on the menu. Right now, many chains either post the information on their websites (nowhere near the food itself) or print it in a pamphlet or on a poster somewhere. The restaurant association supported the idea because restaurants face so many rules in different states about nutrition information that they preferred uniformity over conflicting local laws. Most restaurants already have to spend the money to find out the calorie counts; if anything, they might save money by having all locations display the information in the same way. 

I've been writing for a while that what's needed in the fight against obesity is not more taxes but a culture change--and I think this new requirement will do just that. Think of the culture changes we've already seen over the years: helmets on bike riders, non-drinking pregnant women, seat belts, car seats, smokers outside the doors of buildings. We've done it before. 

So if you were at the Outback Steakhouse and saw that a Bloomin' Onion contains 1,561.1 calories (and a whopping 84.2 grams of fat, and 186.4 grams of carbs), would you order one? Even if you split it among your friends, you're still way over the top for what is reasonably healthy, even in a restaurant--and you still haven't even had dinner. Because of my daughter, we carry a Calorie King around, a small reference book with calorie and carb counts, to determine insulin doses. I've seen the counts for some of the items at Starbucks, Cold Stone Creamery, and Denny's, to name a few, and wait until you see how unbelievable they are when they have to put them on the menus. Imagine being on a date at Chili's ... maybe you'll order a Quesadilla Explosion Salad, but it's 1,400 calories and 88 grams of fat (better get a Diet Coke with that). A salad sounds healthy, but it's appalling. Once people see some of these numbers, I think they'll be too put off to order these things. You can't underestimate the information factor in terms of changing people's behavior. It's far more effective than taxes, if you ask me. 

Here's another part of the culture change: Jamie Oliver, the Naked Chef, has a new show debuting this Sunday on ABC called Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. If you check out his webpage, you'll see that he's trying to change the culture of restaurant meals, take-out, and processed food that so many families have come to rely on, and get people back to home cooking. He's also very active in trying to improve the federal school lunch program, and I think he's already changing what some of the school systems are serving the kids. He's got a huge platform in terms of viewers, and I hope more chefs join him. As parents, as consumers, and even as friends and neighbors, we need to change the culture that's leading to so much obesity, especially in kids. We can't really expect the government to fix this for us. 

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