Do Calories on the Menu Make a Difference?

Calories are on the menu in some chains, but not all diners change their habits.

May 23, 2008— -- New York is a city that is obsessed with numbers. How much money did you make last year? How many championships have you won? How big is your skyscraper? How much did you pay for your two-bedroom apartment?

But now the 8 million residents of the Big Apple are being forced to chew on some numbers that are a whole lot harder to swallow — the calories in their food. Since January of this year, chain restaurants with 15 or more establishments are required by law to post the calories of everything that they serve – right on the menu.

Now you can see just how many calories are in your breakfasts (a McDonald's McMuffin packs 450 calories), lunches (a Taco Bell burrito, 2,500 calories) and dinners (Chili's chicken Caesar salad: 1,010 calories).

The enforcers are the folks at New York City Department of Health. They, too, are focused on the numbers and are hoping to reverse some disturbing trends.

"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 with the NYC 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."

Not everyone agrees, including, perhaps not surprisingly, the people at the National Restaurant Association.

"I would like to see the scientific info on that claim," said Chuck Hunt from the Association. "We are very in favor of doing things. The restaurant industry for the last 20 years has increasingly offered our customers a way in which to reduce calories and other nutritional items. But it is more than just calories that count; it has to be exercise. The real place is in the home to worry about obesity.

Hunt says the calorie mandate is an example of the government micromanaging small businesses.

Will this new law make a difference in the waistline of New Yorkers? "Nightline" enlisted the help of a man who not only loves food but who makes his living writing about it.

"I'm a purist," said Josh Ozersky, a food writer for New York magazine's Grub Street and author of "The Hamburger: a History." "Nightline" met up with Ozersky at Hill Country Barbeque, one his favorite spots in New York. "I love it when it's incredibly complex and layered — when all the arts of gastronomy have gone into a dish. But it should all be based on the beauty and simplicity of animal fat."

Ozersky doesn't think that knowing how many calories can be 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. "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. … The food coma is like — unless you are some kind of Cassanova — 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 and 570 calories, respectively. He says some meals should be "guilt-free eating."

"Like if you are emotionally crushed … if I'm in a bad mood a Big Mac isn't even going to begin to do the job."

For people concerned with health, Ozersky says that it isn't the Big Mac that's 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. 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 of the "sucker salads." The Pecan Encrusted Chicken Salad at TGI Friday's has 1,360 calories.

"Pecans seem healthy. 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."

Right now, of the 23,000 restaurants in New York City, only 10 percent have to post calories. Are restaurants trying to mislead customers by not being more forthcoming about calorie counts?

"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."

Some critics worry it could actually backfire by adding a "forbidden fruit" allure to high calorie foods.

New York isn't the only city to enact this law. San Francisco and Seattle have followed the Big Apple's lead.

"The restaurants aren't trying to keep any secrets," said Hunt. "We are happy to provide this information. It's how it is done that is the big issue."

"Let me put it this way, when you go out to buy a shirt it tells you silk or cotton or polyester," said Silver. "Do you think of it as clothing information or useful information? We think of this as useful information every consumer should have."

But does it improve our lives?

"It doesn't make my life better. I have a freakish existence," said Ozersky. "But I'd say it probably makes for a better society."

You can still dig your own grave with a knife and fork in New York. And at least one guy is willing to try.

"I'm immune to cardiac disease," Ozersky said, salting his 28 ounce Porterhouse steak.