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The Food & Drug Administration proposed a menu labeling rule on Friday, which if passed, would require restaurants with 20 locations or more to post calorie counts on their menus. Operators of more than 20 vending machines would also have to do the same.
You know I'm no fan of diets, especially diets that require you to painstakingly count calories and go cold turkey on everything delicious. Diets that take over your life to that degree usually aren't healthy and they may be a warning sign of a disordered eating pattern.
And the media coverage of this regulation is already going there. Take this AP story, which opens with, "It could get harder to indulge in a double cheeseburger and fries without feeling guilty." Gah! There are no morally good foods and bad foods, only foods for different purposes. Some nourish your body. Others taste amazing. There's no need to experience guilt because fat, sugar and salt make your taste buds sing -- that's their raison d'etre.
So what I'm going to say next may surprise you: I am a fan of menu labeling laws. I think the FDA should require fast food chains to disclose calorie counts and other nutritional info to consumers before they buy. Here's why: These restaurants aren't in the business of selling nourishing foods that are both healthful and delicious. They're in the business of selling fat, salt and sugar -- low-priced commodities that they can move quickly in mass quantities, for a huge profit.
Again: Fat, sugar and salt taste amazing. That's fine. But we should get to choose when and how much amazing we consume.
You might argue that everyone already knows fast food is unhealthy. But these companies have been working hard in recent years to market so-called healthier options that aren't so much, like the Starbucks Caramel Frappucino Light, which is weighed down with 28 grams of sugar. It's gotten increasingly impossible to discern the purpose of any given processed food. And lots of hard working families depend on fast food chains to supply a quick and affordable breakfast, lunch or dinner on a regular (even daily) basis. They deserve to know what they're getting, nutrition-wise. Eating healthy shouldn't be a privilege reserved only for those with time for home cooking. Disclosing this information is a critical first step towards getting this industry to do better by its consumers.
Still, the question remains: How do we square these goals (consumer protection, increased nutrition awareness, healthier fast food for all) with a positive body image agenda? Seeing calorie counts everywhere could be triggering for anyone prone to good food/bad food guilt cycles. I don't have a good solution for that.
But I do think these missions aren't as diametrically opposed as you might think. When fast food companies obscure nutritional information in favor of marketing campaigns revolving around themes of sinful indulgence, they play right in to that good food/bad food dichotomy. White Castle "What You Crave," Lays "Betcha Can't Eat Just One," and Outback Steakhouse "No Rules" are all supposed to be eaten when you're being "bad."
How you feel afterwards? Not their problem.