The New Healthcare Reform Bill and Your Big Mac

Fast food and other chains nationwide are now required by law to post calorie counts.

If you’re like me, your Facebook page has been blowing up with pro- and con-healthcare reform status updates since the vote Sunday night. Gone are the days of “Leslie is…mortified to learn she accidentally used hunter green eyeliner to fill in her brows this morning”; hello, “Sam is…WHY DON’T PEOPLE UNDERSTAND HEALTH INSURANCE DOES NOT EQUAL HEALTH CARE?!?”

But one thing my FB buddies haven’t been discussing is a requirement slipped into the U.S health care bill which requires more than 200,000 fast food and other chain restaurants to post calorie counts on menus, menu boards and drive-throughs. The new law applies to any restaurant with 20 plus locations and vending machines carrying convenience foods, and was signed by President Barack Obama Tuesday.

The hope is that by ensuring customers understand the calories in that Big Mac or fettuccini alfredo they’re about to order, they’ll be so horrified by the monstrous numbers (and their ensuing impact on their waistline and heart health) that they’ll order something healthier, like the 200-calorie side salad with fat-free vinaigrette.

But will this new law truly change America’s food landscape? After all, New York has been doing this for a few years, yet a 2009 study found that residents of poor neighborhoods eating at McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken actually consumed MORE calories than typical customer had before the labeling law went into effect in July 2008. When asked about the labeling law’s impact on their choices, one Harlem McDonald’s customers had the following to say:

 “I don’t really care too much. I know I shouldn’t, ’cause I’m too big already.” - Tameika Coates, Big Mac, large fries, large Sprite, 1350 calories. 

It’s just cheap, so I buy it. I’m looking for the cheapest meal I can.” - William Mitchell, two cheeseburgers, about 600 calories total, for $2.

“‘Life is short. I started eating everything now I’m pregnant.” - April Matos, Happy Meal for her 3-year-old son, Snack Wrap for herself

Granted, residents who live in low-income areas tend to have poorer education levels as well as fewer financial resources; If they can fill their family’s bellies for $6 with tasty, savory cheeseburgers and chicken nuggets, they’re going to. Those cancer-fighting blackberries that cost $5/pint and omega 3-rich salmon at $9.99/lb? They’re going to be left at the grocery store – if they’re even available.

Further confusing matters, not all studies show that posting calories counts is futile. In 2007/08 , when researchers from NYC’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene surveyed 23,000 customers in 13 fast-food chains—McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Subway, Au Bon Pain, KFC, Popeye's, Domino's, Pizza Hut, Papa John's, Taco Bell, Starbucks, and Dunkin Donuts—they found  that customers who read the calorie information on menu items purchased an average of 106 fewer calories than those who said they didn't notice the postings: 754 calories' worth of food versus 860 calories' worth.

In my opinion, this law is a smart move – some information is better than none, and for many consumers who ARE concerned about their health or weight, this information will be empowering. For example, a seemingly benign Sierra Turkey Sandwich at Panera packs 970 calories and 54g fat, 12 of them saturated. You’d be better off ordering a Quarter Pounder at McDonalds for 410 calories and 19g fat, 7 of them saturated. Not even I would know that, and I have a BS in nutritional sciences! My husband watches his cholesterol intake like a hawk and when he learned that Sierra Turkey info – a sandwich he usually forced himself to order because it seemed infinitely healthier than the roast beef – he actually shrieked in horror.

I remember the first time I saw calories posted by law. I was in NY for a Today show appearance and I stopped in Starbucks for some tea. Imagine my surprise when I saw a sign on the ubiquitous banana tray that said “Bananas, 90-140 calories.” From that point on, I noticed it everywhere – even a little empanada stand had the calorie count listed for each of their pillowy dough boys. It was, all at once, a bit disconcerting and wildly enlightening. Part of me loved the fact that people could see, “Oh, wow, this blueberry scone has 720 calories. Maybe I shouldn’t mow one down every morning.” But it also made eating a little less fun. I stopped for ice cream that night and as I ordered, I glanced at the Nutritional Info sign. It made me switch from a medium to a small. And I am not a “size small ice cream” kind of girl. Also, I wonder exactly how accurate these numbers are. If some rinky dink café is telling me their bagel has 324 calories and 2.7 grams of fat, it makes me think, “How on earth does this Mom and Pop shop have the fancy scientific equipment necessary to analyze to such a specific degree?”

What do you think? Have you seen calorie counts posted at a chain restaurant near you? If so, did it change your mind about what to order?

More: Can the Government Make Us Eat Better?

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