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Do We Need Calorie Laws?

A Law That May Radically Change the Way You Eat

As we speak, there is legislation being proposed that may completely change the way you eat out. If you've been to New York City or live there, you already know what I'm talking about. Walk into most NYC restaurants (except fine dining and smaller restaurants) and you will see calories posted front and center. It is called the Dietary Disclosure Law. It's already in effect in NYC and is making its way to California where it will be implemented by 2011. Other states are likely to follow. Labeling menus is now a federal bill sitting before congress.

How will this impact restaurants? It may just alter what your favorite eatery serves and how they label their menu. The Wall Street Journal reported on September 16th that the Macaroni Grill recently revamped their menu. They came up with healthier and lighter fares to keep their customers returning. Apparently, people were not thrilled when the true calorie content was revealed. One of the Macaroni Grill's desserts was recently deemed "the worst in America." The dessert contained as many calories as some people eat in a day. Now, they are turning over a new leaf. Expect to see many more healthy options that are tasty too.

Here is the issue. We all want to eat healthy. Yet, is calorie count a gauge of this? We have to keep in mind that calories are only one aspect of food composition that helps you gauge how healthy it is. Basically, you look at calories and say to yourself one of two things, "high or low." It's a little bit like weight. Weight alone is a very limited source of information. You have to know how tall someone is to put weight into context. For example, is 150lbs a healthy or unhealthy weight? Again, that depends on how tall you are and if you are a man or a woman. Also, you must know exactly what someone eats and if they are getting adequate nutrition to determine if they are healthy. We've all known thin people who have very unhealthy diets. So calorie content really doesn't signify "health" per say. It tells you the energy density of food and if it puts you at risk for eating a lot of calories or a little.

Some people love the idea and new law. In fact, a survey of New Yorkers found that the majority of people were in favor of the new menu information. In general, it may help people make much more informed choices. It is often difficult, almost impossible, to eyeball some dishes and know how healthy they truly are. This holds restaurants accountable for being honest and making healthy dishes (at reasonable calorie counts!). Without urging, would restaurants do it? Not to mention the expense and complexity of changing menus.

On the other hand, for people with eating disorders, posting calories can wreak havoc on their emotions and is very triggering of eating disordered behavior. The message their treatment professionals give them-let go of calorie counting. Making choices only on calorie content is a recipe for danger. Calories can take over your life if you let them and suck the joy out of eating completely. Instead of using calories to gauge health, people with eating disorders focus on balance, variety and eating mindfully.

Basically, ignoring or obsessing about calories is a problem. The trick is to raise your awareness of what you are eating. Think content not calories. Does this food give me nutrition, balance and a reasonable amount of energy for what my body needs?

How else can we broach the issue of helping people make wise, informed decisions without taking the joy out of eating? Perhaps give people all the facts like putting the complete label like the kind you see on the back of a cereal box? The problem is that it takes time and education to decipher complex food labels. How about giving an overall health rating which is based on a number of different factors (such as calorie content, level of energy density, vitamins and minerals etc).

What are your suggestions?

Overall, we all want to eat healthier and be more mindful of what we put into our mouths. It's so much easier said than done, labels or no labels.

by the author of 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food and Eating Mindfully