America is a country obsessed with numbers. How much money do you make? How much did you pay for your home? How much do you weigh? But, now, everyone may be forced to consider some numbers that are a whole lot harder to swallow: the calories in our food.
Newly proposed federal legislation may require chain restaurants with 20 or more establishments to post the calories of everything they serve, right on the menu. And the National Restaurant Association, which originally fought calorie posting, now says it supports it.
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Calorie counting is already on display in New York City. Enacted last year, the law was the idea of the local health department after officials there started looking at some other numbers.
"In some of our neighborhoods, two out of three residents are overweight or obese and that has doubled over the last decade," said Dr. Lynn Silver, assistant commissioner for chronic disease prevention and control at the city's Department of Health. "This is a problem that is getting worse.
"We hope that this law will have a significant impact on both the frequency of obesity and diabetes in our city. We estimate that in our city there will be 150,000 fewer people obese because of this."
Calorie Numbers Won't Stop Diners
But whether the law will make a difference in the waistline of New Yorkers is still the subject of debate.
"I'm a purist," said Josh Ozersky, the national restaurant editor for Citysearch.com and author of "The Hamburger: a History."
"I love it when it's incredibly complex and layered, when all the arts of gastronomy have gone into a dish," he said last year at one of his favorite spots in New York, Hill Country Barbecue. "But it should all be based on the beauty and simplicity of animal fat."
Ozersky doubts that knowing how many calories are found in a particular dish is going to stop people from ordering their favorites.
"I don't think calorie counts are going to stop people from ordering something that's really good," he said.
In Favor of Guilt-Free Meals
"The problem is this: these places all want to have beautiful food that tastes really good but that costs almost nothing and that puts the customer into a kind of a pleasingly opiated, doped-up sensation," Ozersky said. "The food coma is like, unless you are some kind of Casanova, you don't have that much great same kind of physical sensation. But the problem is that to do that, you need to rely on -- what's my favorite of all things? Fat."
Ozersky tried a Big Mac and large fries, which tip the calorie counter at 540 calories each. He says some meals should be "guilt-free eating."
"Like, if you are emotionally crushed and if I'm in a bad mood, a Big Mac isn't even going to begin to do the job," he said.
'Doomsday for the Wrap'
For people concerned about health, Ozersky says the Big Mac isn't the problem.
"The meals that need calories on the menus are not the quad-stackers or Big Macs of the world," he said.
"I mean, all of these fast-food companies have had to come up with healthy options because they know people are worried about it, they want the mothers to come in with their kids, so they've created these healthy options," he said.
"And it's always like a chicken with something else. It always involves a chicken. Then you find out that the chicken is as bad as the hamburger. That could be useful to those people making these kinds of decisions.
"I think that people will be affected by it but only in that middle-brow, fast-food range -- chicken Caesar salads and wraps or whatever. This is going to be doomsday for the wrap."
Ozersky also says to beware the "sucker salads." The Pecan Encrusted Chicken Salad at T.G.I. Friday's has 1,360 calories, for instance.
"Pecans seem healthy," he said. "They're nuts. Chicken is skinless, there are greens. It's colorful and healthy, yeah, but it's almost as many calories as three Big Macs."
As for whether restaurants are trying to mislead customers by not being more forthcoming about calorie counts, Ozersky said, "I don't think they want to keep it a secret. It's like if your boyfriend asked you have you been in love before, how many guys have you been with? You would tell him, but you wouldn't maybe volunteer it at an inopportune moment. Sitting down to order in culinary terms is like going in for the first kiss."
'Forbidden Fruit' Mentality
Some critics worry it could actually backfire by adding a "forbidden fruit" allure to high-calorie foods.
Elsewhere, San Francisco and Seattle have followed the Big Apple's lead and pending federal legislation, means the whole country may soon follow suit.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is one of the bill's chief backers, even as some people question whether Washington should have its hands in people's dinners.
"The menu-labeling agreement reached this week will not only help consumers to make informed decisions about their health when eating out, but is a critical part of a broader re-orientation to a society of prevention and health promotion," Harkin said in a written statement earlier today.
The menu law may be included as part of Sen. Ted Kennedy's health care reform proposal, expected to be debated in Congress in the next few weeks.
Ozersky is among those with mixed feelings about the bill.
"It doesn't make my life better, I have a freakish existence," he said. "But I'd say it probably makes for a better society."
Personally, "I'm immune to cardiac disease," Ozersky said, salting his 28-ounce porterhouse steak.