Nutrition Information: Coming to a Table Near YOU.
It’s no secret that eating at restaurants can be shockingly high in calories. Anyone who has seen “Eat This Not That” segments on morning shows knows that the whole wheat grilled chicken hold-the-mayo sandwich is sometimes more of a calorie bomb than a cheeseburger. We live in a world of 1500 calorie salads. It’s enough to drive a pudgy girl mad. By the end of this year, chains with more than 20 locations will be forced to cough up their numbers. Is this good or bad?
Glazed yeast doughnut from The Donut Shoppe in Arlington. Estimated calories – 200-250 (based on a comparably sized, similarly prepared Krispy Kreme doughnut). Add a piece of fruit (60-100 calories) and a cup of coffee with two sugars (32 calories) and you’ve got a sane sometimes-treat breakfast for a maximum of 382 calories or less. Was that so hard?
Studies in the limited areas, like New York City, where calorie counts are currently required to be posted in the same font as price have shown that lower income consumers do not change their caloric intake based on the posting of the information. (No mention is made of the rich, who evidently don’t have to worry about it because they have a personal chef and a trainer.) When researching this new development in food marketing, I found plenty of high handed nastiness which roundly condemned “the uneducated poor” as lazy, shiftless, fat people who saw the higher calories as evidence of greater value. Lots of words are spewed about “governmental subsidy social experimentation” and people who “don’t care about their health.” However – I think the truth is closer to home than that. Each of us cares whether or not we live or die. We all know that obesity is a ticking time bomb. Yet 60% of us ARE obese. (Myself included.)
Unfortunately, we don’t all get to carry a sign around that tells people why we’re fat. I haven’t ingested a Twinkie, Little Debbie, sack of chips or pint of ice cream in over a decade – probably longer. I know that stuff is bad for me and I don’t eat it. I don’t eat because I’m sad. I don’t eat when I’m not hungry. Unlike Oprah, I was born knowing that food was not love (though bacon comes close). I have always exercised sane portion sizes. (Except that one lobster in Nova Scotia. We shall not speak of that.) Personally, I got fat from being treated with a drug that caused me to gain 100 pounds in a single year. My family doesn’t have a history of obesity and I weighed a grand total of a whopping 124 pounds the day I was given my first dose of this drug that shall remain nameless because I don’t want to get sued. During that time, I was an active college student who participated in marching band and held down two jobs. After that 100 pounds, I had four children. Today, I’ve lost a great deal of that weight and I’m currently losing about 15 pounds a month. I do a full hour of cardio every single day and exist on 1400 calories. That statement won’t fit around my neck on a string so people automatically assume that because I’m a food writer and a size 14, I’m a glutton.
I would guess that most people have reasons for their obesity. A primary one for just about everyone is that they TRY to make the right choices, but that grilled chicken/cheeseburger tradeoff screws them more often than not. I am a big proponent of eating real food that I cook myself – always have been. Replacing real food with fake food that is supposed to make you thinner invariably leads to “We don’t know what frankensugar does to you in the long term” or worse – “Fake fat causes anal leakage.” The problem is, most of us don’t know that a little handful (1/4 cup) of shredded cheese adds around 110 calories to any meal. When adults are asked to judge a portion of cereal, they overshoot by more than 100% in most studies. A bottle of Guinness Draught is only 126 calories (woot!) but choose Extra Stout and you get 176 – 36 calories more than a can of full calorie Coca-Cola of the same size. (Though I maintain that GUINNESS IS GOOD FOR YOU!)
We are trying in good faith to make the right choices, but failing miserably. It feels REALLY good for those blessed with high metabolism, excellent self-control and ultimate wisdom to say, “People who are fat are stupid, lazy and ignorant. They want to stay that way.” If “most people” are ignorant and fat and you’re not, then you’re better than most people. Doesn’t that feel nice? But that is as big a lie we tell ourselves as those smug positive commercials for high fructose corn syrup that they pulled after Princeton studies showed that HFCS is metabolized differently and caused more weight gain than conventional sugar. 3 out of the 5 people that these geniuses know and love will suffer from obesity and, inevitably, they will too by proxy.
The only thing that worked for me when I got serious was writing down every caloric thing I put in my mouth and staying under 1400. I doubled my exercise and started seeing rapid results. Surprisingly, this is easy at standard fast food chains. At McDonalds, Wendys, Burger King, ChickFilA, Arbys and any other national chain I have a phone app and numerous helpful websites. I find something under 400 calories, pile on the veggies, get a bottle of water and I’m golden. But what to do when I’m at a “real” restaurant? (Which unsurprisingly happens often.) For the most part, I hate TGI McChangs Factory, but even those places have information that can be found online if I try hard enough. Even the theme park we’re visiting this summer, Holiday World, has a full nutritional report on all of their concessions throughout the park. You’d think that eating one of those big turkey legs would be better than a cheeseburger and fries. You’d be wrong.
What changes would all of us make if that information was posted directly on the menu at every restaurant? By the end of the year, that’s going to happen at the big chains. Personally, it will make my life much easier. I didn’t get fat and stay fat because I was irresponsible or ignorant. It was because I thought that if I kept making “good” choices like chicken and vegetables and exercising moderately, it would eventually work. Even someone completely educated about portion size and food values has a tendency to grossly underestimate their daily caloric intake. I treat my food like a budget now. I write it all down and when I run out, it’s game over. I welcome this change and I personally think that all restaurants should have average caloric numbers for all of their dishes.
I can already hear my local chef friends grumbling about making food to order, legal issues, added cost, lost business, inaccuracy and creative license. Sadly, the consistency offered by the corporate nature of chains lends itself well to producing nutritional information. (Yes, there are inaccuracies.) I understand those issues, but people have a right to know what they are eating. Many people say they don’t want to know, so maybe people should at least have the ability to ask for a separate nutrition fact sheet. Everyone can and should indulge and have personal freedom. However, as a food writer, I have to wonder – if you would make a different choice if you knew how many calories were in what you eat, why wouldn’t you want to know? We all know that ignorance is not freedom.
Would you hand over your debit card to buy an item that didn’t have a price tag, entrusting your cash to a merchant whose stated purpose is to make a profit? To take that analogy out to the bitter end – we hand over the “account” of our body to a meal, then blindly “make a payment” with an extra few minutes at the gym or a skipped meal, hoping it all balances out. How long would your credit score last if you handled your finances that way? Google “getting out of debt” and you’ll find thousands of sites that tell you that the first thing you should do to get out of debt is open every bill and add it all up. If you’re going to eat a menu item anyway, does tricking yourself change reality? Does not opening the credit card bill make it go away? There’s a reality about the amount of food we’re putting in our body. We can either know it and be empowered by it, or we can leave it up to someone else who is making a profit from our plate.
I wonder if any of the many local restaurants who care about local, slow, sustainable food have the balls to step up and empower their patrons with this information? I personally vow to mention each and every one of them that does in my monthly food news, Facebook and Twitter, but I’m not holding my breath.
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, nutritionist, especially moral person or hairdresser. Don’t follow anyone’s diet advice because we’re all ignorant lazy Americans. I am also suspicious of most Canadians. You can consult with a doctor if it makes you feel proactive, but the bastards have come up with 200,000 drugs that make us fat and cause hair to grow on our pancreases (pancreii?) but not a single one that makes us lose weight without dire side effect. There is more to nutrition than calories. Photos of my bloated corpse will be sent to everyone who is right about how wrong I am in the future.
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all images copyright © 2011 by jodi a. kasten • all rights reserved