Opinion: The FDA will have it their way, so start counting calories!

In 2010, as part of the Affordable Care Act, chain restaurants and vending machines were mandated to disclose calorie counts. Four years later, the FDA announced last week that chain restaurants with 20 or more stores as well as vending machines (machine operators with at least 20 locations), movie theaters, convenience stores, amusement parks and others have up to two years to comply with the new Federal rule. 

The rule aims to close the gap in the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act signed by President George H. W. Bush. Some states have already implemented menu labeling, but the new rule will create national standards; a move that has been supported and welcomed by the restaurant industry for years.

While experts don’t believe the new rule will miraculously reduce obesity rates, it is a step in the right direction for three reasons.

First, as a nation we are getting fatter. This new rule might scare consumers into making a less caloric choice.

Second, the National Restaurant Association states one third of all calories consumed in this country are eaten outside of the home (restaurants, bars, food trucks, cuchifritos, vending machines, movie theaters, cafeterias, etc.).

Lastly, counting calories is not easy and can be confusing. How would we track the number of calories in 3 ounces of turkey, 3 ounces of pernil or ham, 4 tablespoons of gravy or cranberry sauce, a cup of cooked stuffing, 2 glasses of wine, 3 buttered bread rolls, a slice of pie, two pieces of homemade flan, homemade eggnog?  

I suspect most consumers severely underestimate the number of calories eaten in everyday meals. For example, a grilled chicken and brown rice bowl can have up to 1,090 calories; add a soda or specialty cup of coffee and that lunch adds up to almost 1,400 calories up. That’s 600 calories away from reaching the recommended daily calories of 2000.

Posting calories will make some consumers plan and choose in a more judicious manner while others will not. Data does not exist that correlates a decline in sales from higher calorie food items to lower calorie items in the states that currently post calories. That said, when I saw that my favorite banana loaf cake had almost 500 calories, I stopped eating it — cold turkey, period. After all, a banana loaf cake adds no nutritional value and I could use the $3 to buy a bag of kale. I’m serious.

I am not alone. Many consumers do forgo eating out if the calories are posted. Just ask MSNBC “Morning Joe” host, Joe Scarborough, who stated, “I walked into Friendly’s and when I saw how many calories were in the meal, I walked out.” Which is why this rule took four years: the opposition was strong. 

The National Restaurant Association is satisfied with the FDA’s new ruling but the National Automatic Merchandising Association, the National Grocers Association, the Food Marketing Institute and grocery chain Kroger are not. They cited the following reasons: “The cost of complying with the proposed requirements will be almost $1 billion in the first year,” “The requirement could mean job losses or higher grocery bills for consumers,” “The rule is costly and a regularly burden,” and  “Two years was insufficient implementation time, especially for small businesses.”  

As a matter of public health policy, no one policy can curtail our obesity epidemic. Moreover, menu labeling is challenging, costly, and somewhat confusing. How do we calculate a meal at a buffet, salad bar or the gluttonous-all-you-can-eat restaurant specials?

Ideally, I hope positive outcomes will come out of this new rule, particularly in African-American and Hispanic communities where, according to the CDC, obesity rates are at almost fifty percent. Perhaps this new rule will move the needle, and there is no better time than the holidays to think about how much we eat. 

According to Brian Wansink, Ph.D., director at the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, most families will pile on the food by Three Kings Day (January 6) most will have gained three to five pounds. Keep in mind, it takes an additional 3,500 calories per day to gain one pound. Hopefully, this new rule will be a big-fat wake up call.

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