Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Spoon-fed by the nanny state

In the recent past, whenever my husband or I or our family has had occasion to grab a bite to eat at a restaurant, we've noticed that quite a lot of chain restaurants have been subtly changing their menus. Nothing new in that, of course; one way restaurants try to keep business increasing is to offer new items--but these weren't so much new items as healthier versions of older ones, containing less salt, less fat, fewer calories, or all of the above.

Thad and I both said that the restaurants were trying to get ahead of the nanny-state push to make restaurant food healthier, as seen in this rather egregious effort from New York. It turns out that we were right--but we had no idea that the new nanny-state regulations were contained within the health care bill itself, and that restaurants, likely aware of this fact, were apparently betting on the legislation passing:
Buried deep in the health care legislation that President Obama signed on Tuesday is a new requirement that will affect any American who walks into a McDonald’s, Starbucks or Burger King. Every big restaurant chain in the nation will now be required to put calorie information on their menus and drive-through signs.

In other words, as soon as 2011 it will be impossible to chomp down on a Big Mac without knowing that it contains over 500 calories, more than a quarter of the Agriculture Department’s 2,000-calorie daily guideline.

The legislation also requires labels on food items in vending machines, meaning that anybody tempted by a king-size Snickers bar will know up front that it packs 440 calories.

The measure is intended to create a national policy modeled on a requirement that has already taken effect in New York City and was to go into effect in 2011 in places like California and Oregon. The new federal law requires restaurant chains with 20 or more outlets to disclose calorie counts on their food items and supply information on how many calories a healthy person should eat in a day.[...]

The measure was approved by Congress with little public discussion, in part because restaurant chains supported it. They had spent years fighting such requirements, but they were slowly losing the battle. Confronting a potential patchwork of conflicting requirements adopted by states and cities, they finally asked Congress to create a single national standard.

“We have been strong advocates and supporters in trying to ensure this provision became law, and are extremely pleased that it was signed into law today,” Sue Hensley, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association, said on Tuesday. “The association and the industry were supportive because consumers will see the same types of information in more than 200,000 restaurant locations across the country.”

Now, I'm not opposed to restaurants providing customers with information about the calorie content of menu items. It's certainly helpful, when we're trying to make healthy food choices, to know, for instance, that a McDonald's (tm) four-piece chicken nugget kids' meal with fries and small soda contains 520 calories, and that a ten-piece chicken nugget meal with supersized soda and fries has 1,340 (not counting the extra hundred calories you consume if you use two packages of most of the available dipping sauces). I know that, were I to be sitting at Chili's (tm) and looking at a menu, it might make a lot of difference to me in terms of what I'd order if I knew that the Guiltless Grill Salmon entree contained 530 calories and a side of seasonal veggies added 80, while an order of Crispy Honey-Chipotle Chicken Crispers with ranch contained 1,950 calories and the side of fries added an extra 380, plus the 190 from the corn on the cob (and that's not the most calorie-laden item on the menu, nor does it include the calories from any beverages ordered).

What I am opposed to is the notion that the government has to come in and order that this information, which in the case of most national chain restaurants is available online and elsewhere, be printed on menus (including drive-thru menus) and otherwise placed prominently in front of diners. I resent this for two reasons: one, it reinforces the idea that Americans are just too stupid to do their homework and look up the nutrition information for the food they eat without the government mandating that this information be presented to them in a specific way, and two, there is the question someone interviewed in the New York Times article asks: what if this doesn't work?

In other words, what if restaurants put nutrition facts all over their menus, and consumers keep on ordering and eating unhealthy, fattening foods? Will restaurants then be penalized for every entree over, say, six or seven hundred calories on the menu? Will diners pay a "fat tax" on certain dishes? Will some of the ingredients that raise caloric value be banned, or taxed so heavily that restaurants will stop using them?

I recognize that obesity is a great problem in America, and I also see that restaurants, with their oversized portions and seemingly healthy choices which are anything but (some restaurant salads are over 2,000 calories apiece when served with dressing, for instance), play a part in this. But I wonder what our founding fathers would have thought of the idea that the central government could, for the most part, override local governments by insisting that one central menu labeling law be packed into a health care bill and require, on the grounds of public health, that all restaurants with more than twenty stores abide by this Washington-based policy.

Of course, I wonder what our founding fathers would have thought of the idea that the central government should be making decisions about the health care of individual Americans, too--but that's a different topic altogether.


Dino said...

Maybe this will result in smaller servings, too.
I've noticed that my always-hungry hyperactive 14-year-old has been wrapping up about one-third of an evening cheeseburger to save for breakfast. Says it it too much for one meal.

Dawn Farias said...

While I personally will love having all that information readily available, I agree that it shouldn't be forced.

Irenaeus said...

Think about this: What if the obesity problem isn't fundamentally about intake but output? That is, what if it's more about lack of activity than eating too much bad food? Back in the day, kids could horse on whatever mom made, and for us it was often potatoes, dumplings from white flour, fatty meat, and all of it doused in either ketchup or Ranch dressing, depending on. We also ate a ton at fast food restaurants. But we went outside and played for hours on end: pick-up sports, biking around town, swimming, etc.

I would posit that it's TV and now the Internet that's keeping kids fat, plus the increasing urbanization of society and urban density, kids having fewer places to run free and play in dense cities than they did in smaller cities, suburbs, towns, farms.

And yet the government hasn't yet seen fit to try and regulate the amount of TV that comes into a home, which would be technologically easy to do. Why is that?

Probably because TV is the thing that makes us servile and stupid. It's the medium through which by its very nature (cf. McLuhan and Postman here) we become enculturated into modernity, and modernity is good at making slaves to the State.

Anonymous said...

Look, health and fitness are a combination of calories in and calories out -- it's really not all that complicated. Also, people have a false idea of how many calories they're burning, and often feel justified to eat far more calories than they just burned because they think an hour of moderate aerobic exercise gives them a license to eat.

I don't like government poking their noses in to people's private lives, but when people's food choices and lifestyle choices directly impact my wallet, and those people can't self-regulate their behavior, then I don't have a problem with as benign a measure as this one.

First of all, listing calories and nutritional breakdown has nothing to do with state v. federal government -- the calories and nutritional breakdown don't change becausee the requirement to post them comes from a state government rather than the federal government.

Secondly, this is a national problem, and it's affecting kids who rely on their parents to make appropriate choices for them. I hardly want to see people like that nutter in NYC ripping cupcakes out of strangers' kids' hands, but the health and well-being of too many kids is being destroyed by both over eating and under exercising. If a poster with nutritional breakdown stops a few parents from filling their kids with garbage, that's a good thing.

Finally, obesity-related disease costs the nation bajillions. Sorry, but it's true. Fat, lazy people cost me money, and I'm sick of it. There is nothing hard or complicated about being healthy. If you want to eat yourself into oblivion and/or vegitate on a sofa 24/7, fine, but I shouldn't have to contribute one red cent, directly or indirectly, to the cost of fixing the problems you're creating in your own body (you in the general sense).

I don't really think these nutritional warnings will do much because most people are stupid, lazy and selfish (yep, I'm cynical, but I've been around a long time, lived all over the country, and that's pretty much where I net out), but they can't hurt. If nothing else, maybe they'll shame some people into preparing a proper meal for the children they chose to bring into this world.


Anonymous said...

BTW -- the "fat tax" thing doesn't bother me -- we tax cigarettes and alcohol -- we tax sugar, too.

Thing is, you can either have a completely libertarian society (yay!) or a completely socialist society (boo!), but this mix we have of the two doesn't work because someone is always getting screwed.

Since we're all now paying for everyone else's healthcare, then, yeah, tax the beJesus out of the fatties.

If you're generally healthy and only eat out at fast food joints and chain restaurants on occasion, the tax really won't impact you that much. If you stop at McDonald's for a Big Mac and large fries every day (and people do...), then you'll feel the pinch. Good. Don't really think that will stop most people who eat like that regularly, either, but at least they'll be paying more into the system than I will.


Red Cardigan said...

Sharon, I honestly think it's a bit more complicated than that.

Did you see "Food, Inc.?" for example? One segment showed a family of five eating dollar-menu type items, and then that same family trying to select, for the same amount of money, fresh foods from the produce section of their local grocery store (a big chain store). They couldn't do it--they couldn't feed their family a single decent meal for the cheap cost of the fast-food meal.

There *are* foods cheap to cook that are nutritious--but both parents in the segment worked full time and the children were in school all day. Who is going to tend to the pot of beans and rice, or the stewed, cheap cut of lean meat, etc.? Sure, a slow-cooker can help, but a family that is in debt and barely paying bills has to set aside money for a relatively cheap appliance, and learn to use it, and so on. And unless they're going to eat beans and rice every day, they *still* can't eat as cheaply as they do from the fast-food menu.

Why? In a word, because our government subsidizes unhealthy foods, not healthy ones. We subsidize corn to an amazing level, though most of it isn't human food grade--it ends up as fillers, as corn syrup, as fuel additives, even as cleaning supplies. And that's just one subsidy that has had unintended consequences on the American diet.

If the United States Government were really serious about improving health through better food, we'd quit subsidizing to the degree that we do foods which are not related to better health. But it's much easier to slap a restaurant-labeling law on food vendors than to tackle factory farming conglomerates and food interest groups to tell them their crop is coming off the subsidy list.

Rebecca said...

Let's keep in mind too that the question isn't only "should this be done" but "should this be done by the Federal government". If the *reason* it should be done by the Federal government is that it is *costing* the federal government (because the federal government is paying for the healthcare)--well, then, it's time to question why the Federal government has its hands in all this in the first place. Why should not states have the sovereignty in these areas? The idea that the Federal government, which was created *to protect the states not to rule them*, is to me beyond absurd and is completely foreign to our form of government as outlined in the Constitution and in the Federalist Papers.

Not to mention--IMO obesity *is not* as simple as calories in, calories out; it has to do with messed up metabolisms caused by bottlefeeding, it has to do with man-made foods which are subsidized or otherwise encouraged by the government, and it has to do with people trying to fill their empty lives. Let's put a bandaid on a severed artery already. But if the Federal Government makes such laws, they are thereby stating that neither States, nor cities, nor individuals, have the competency to make their own judgements about what might be causing obesity and how best to address it. It was essential to the founding of this country that people govern themselves, and that they do so on a local level, with the strength of the *protection* of the Federal government from common foes. How is it we've forgotten this???

Anonymous said...

Yes, it's complicated because we have a gargantuan, corrupt mess of a government, but it's also complicated because people have made messes out of their lives, made poor choices, have really crappy priorites, and now they're suffering the consequences (I don't include the genuinely needy among those people).

It costs nothing to exercise. And it costs nothing to eat less.

Sure, depending on where you live, buying whole, fresh, nutritious food for a large family can be expensive, but eating less and exercising more is a good start and everyone can do it.

I don't buy the time factor -- you can purchase bulk chicken breasts with bone and skin still attached (cheap), spend less than an hour skinning and boning them and then wrapping them individually and freezing them for quick use later on. Store brand frozen veggies are not a bad choice, can be bought in bulk at a relatively low price and are often on sale. Rice, again, store brand, in bulk, is cheap as dirt. A healthy, inexpensive meal for any number of people consisting of broiled chicken breasts, veggies and rice can be whipped up in under half an hour.

And, frankly, if learning to use a slow cooker is soooo time consuming for an adult that it's next to impossible, then maybe they really, really shouldn't be procreating, ya know? Just sayin'.

Feeding a family off the fast food menu might be cheaper in the moment, but it costs billions down the road. People can't whine about how it's sooo haaard to buy and prepare healthy food and then turn around and whine about how they can't afford the doctor bills for fixing all the problems the fast food menu cost them.

If it were up to me, I'd have no government at all meddling in anything -- I'm a true libertarian at heart, perhaps even a tic or two to the right of libertarianism, but I'm also a realist, a pragmatist.

We're now stuck with an increasingly socialist government and I figure if I'm going to be taxed up, down and under to pay for mess other people have made out of their lives, I'm going to support any say I can get in how they run them going forward.


Anonymous said...

Rebecca, I was bottlefed, yet manage to run 50+ miles a week, eat whole, healthy vegetarian dishes, and can rock a pair of size six jeans and Louboutins at the age of 50 and after having five kids like nobody's business.

I also make a living researching and writing about metabolic diseases, and it is indeed, for the overwhelming majority of people, calories in and calories out. Emotional factors and boredom may cause overeating, but it's still more calories in than calories out.

On a side note -- my nephews and nieces were all strictly breastfed and are all overweight (and as dumb as dirt, but that's another topic, lol).


Rebecca said...

So Sharon, it just seems like you're saying oh well, now we have a socialist form of government, and we're too fat and stupid to self-govern anyway, so that socialist government might as well protect us from ourselves. Let me agree with you for the sake of argument. Still I say *if* our new dictators are going to enforce virtue, they need to start with real causes. I can tell an anorexic that she's too skinny because she's not eating enough, but her not eating enough is not the cause of anorexia! You could physically enforce her eating but whatever is going on will surface in another way.

As for calories in, calories out--when I need to lose some weight after having a baby, I cut out carbs and do not count calories. If anything I make sure to use a lot of butter on my bread, whole cream in my coffee, sour cream on my potatoes. The pounds disappear quickly. Maybe everyone's a little different--could that be? But if it's true that everyone's a little different, that not everyone fits a standardized test, then it's hard to make Federal laws out of everything. I think that's why the founding fathers insisted on subsidiarity??? And I, for one, am not ready to give up on the Constitution of the United States.

Anonymous said...

"...Americans are just too stupid to do their homework and look up the nutrition information for the food they eat without the government mandating that this information be presented to them in a specific way"

I peruse the nutrient count column sheet so helpfully provided by McD some time ago which I keep rubberbanded to a sunvisor in my car before I roll into the drive-thru in whatever small town I'm working that day, so I can keep the fat intake low and the protein amount high. At 11:00 PM after starting out at 4:30 AM (after consumption of the tunafish sandwich, boiled egg, carrots, etc. I've packed to eat throughout the day), it's unlikely I'll be able to remember which particular product is the one I don't want to stick around when I get home to fall into bed.

I'm not stupid. By the time I think to stop at fast food, I'm exhausted, and barely remember to tell the order taker to 'hold the mayo'.

Smaller companies are not going to the trouble to provide it unless mandated. Sometimes, it's actually quite informational to find out what's in the food that's served up the way described on TV.


Rebecca said...

Zircon, it seems to me that Red C went to great lengths to clarify that she is not opposed to restaurants providing this information, which can be quite helpful. She is questioning the Federal Government mandating it. Is this the job of the Federal gov't, or are the feds egregiously overreaching the limits of their authority?

I get this weird feeling that a lot of people aren't really even interested in discussing what ought to be the limits of the federal government, and I don't get it. Is it just certain goods we're interested in, like good health, physical safety, etc., and we really just don't care any more what form of government we have to accomplish those ends?

Anonymous said...

The limits of government SHOULD be far greater than what they are now.

But, given what we have to deal with NOW, I don't have a problem with the government trying to alert people to what exactly it is they're putting in their mouths and the mouths of their children.

The TRUTH is we are a grossly obese country, and obesity is increasing, as are the diseases associated with obesity, and they are increasing in ever-younger populations.

If you want to address WHY people overeat, fine, but telling them it's not really calories in/calories out is doing them a disservice -- you're like Oprah, telling them it's all because they're victims, blahblahblah.

Yes, people self-medicate with all kinds of drugs -- alcohol, illegal drugs, prescription medications, food and even religion. They also self-medicate with all kinds of pop-psychology justifications for their stupid behavior.

They need to grow up, not be coddled further.

Like I said, I wouldn't really care if stupid lazy people ate themselves to death -- it culls the herd, if you will.

But if I am going to be asked to pay to fix the results of their stupidity and laziness, then I have no problem with getting a say in how they live their lives.

Here's the thing -- it's not a problem if you're not a big fat lazy slob. That's a lifestyle choice. Choose something else if you don't like what it gets you.

As for your experiences losing weight after having a baby, that's an unusual circumstance -- if you're breastfeeding, you'll burn up the fat pretty quickly. However, for the overwhelming majority of obese adults and children, that's not the case. They need to cut back across the baord and up their physical activity drastically. I can guarantee you that eating the same way you do after you have a baby once you hit menopause will put you in an early grave.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Speaking as a political libertarian, an economic socialist, and, late in life, a cultural conservative, with all the interesting contradictions where those three overlap, as they inevitably do, I see a critical role for the federal government in regulating the long industrial food chains, even perhaps helping to keep us informed of what is reaching us through those food chains, while leaving plenty of room for small, local, productive businesses where we can get to know our suppliers personally. (It hasn't been good at the latter -- regulations designed for the big boys can smother the little operations, and the big boys know it.)

I side with those who have observed that as children we used to run all over the place all day, ride our bikes, play physical sports and games (informally in the neighborhood, not just on formalized teams), and furthermore, my parents NEVER drove us to or from school. Its not a matter of arithmetically balancing calories in vs. calories burned, the metabolism of the body is different if you are chronically physically active.

Anonymous said...

Um, Siarlys, "chronically physically active" IS calories out...

It is indeed a matter of balancing what and how much you eat with how physically active you are. That's what calories in/calories out MEANS.

The problem is that people a) grossly overestimate how many calories they've burned during exercise and b) don't realize that the more active you are and the more efficiently your body burns calories during exercise, the fewer calories you will burn.

As a long time distance runner, I know that I burn fewer calories running a mile than an unfit, overweight person burns walking that same mile.

It is a matter of balancing calories in with calories out. For most unfit people, the best place to start is at the calories in end of the equation. Studies show diet matters more than exercise. You really are what you eat.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Lately experts have written about how few calories a given hour of exercise burns... I was looking at the possibility that an active life changes our metabolism in ways that simple counting of calories in and out doesn't really account for. Whenever we deal with human beings, we are dealing with some far more complex than any exact science ever gets right -- as economists and social workers are beginning to learn. Counting calories isn't worthless, but I doubt that it is the whole story.

Rebecca said...

A lot of doctors (Atkins for one, but there are many others) and nutritionists, and other intelligent people, believe the lowfat fad of the last 30 or so years to be a complete hoax, and have reasons to back it up. My point is this--here we are, talking about whether counting calories is going to help people with the problem of obesity, and that's great, that we can discuss it and people can hold opinions on it. Isn't that great? Now if the *Federal Government* officially takes the side of calorie-counting (which I happen to hold is simplistic bosh), maybe we're still allowed to have these conversations, but isn't that really overstepping boundaries? What right have the Feds to declare the calorie-counters to be correct in their POV, and then enforce their calorie-counting on all the states in the union and the restaurants in them? Those of you who would support such a *federal* measure, please, please explain to me why this should not be in the competency of the individual states?

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Federal agencies are far too quick to push a reasonable possibility as Good Policy For Everyone. Some years ago, I noticed on the annoying commercial video boxes installed on our local bus system, a government-sponsored ad pushing the idea that if you don't put your child in a booster seat until they are four feet high, you are treating them like a crash test dummy. I was certain that Those Who Set Legislative Agendas would soon be pushing for EVERY state to IMMEDIATELY require such things by law. I'm not sold on it.

I'm glad that our food is inspected, particularly meat, and I think it should be inspected more often. I can accept seat belt laws, barely. I am definitely in favor of minimum wage laws. But every detail of life, even including everything that might indeed be beneficial to a lot of people if they only knew, shouldn't be mandatory. Further, we don't always know what is really going to turn out, in the long run, to be "best." At least if I make the wrong decision, the consequences are mine. If the government makes what turns out to be the wrong decision, the consequences are still mine, and when I was right all along, it is aggravating.