A recent (well, recent to me) phenomenon has been popping up here in New York, one I find very interesting. I first noticed it at the food court, as Kyle and I were standing in front of a McDonald’s, contemplating lunch. Three little numbers next to the price of a combo meal. At first, I thought it was another price, maybe that of a super-sized meal, but then it dawned on me: it was the calorie count. Further research discovered that this isn’t just a New York thing, but a national occurrence. (And apparently New York City has been doing this for years.) Within the latest health care reform bill was a provision requiring that restaurants with 20 or more locations nationwide post caloric information for all menu items on their menus. And suddenly, it seemed like everywhere we ate was providing the calorie count. (For an informative write-up of this provision that totally doesn’t talk over your head, see this article in the New England Journal of Medicine.)
I’m fascinated. Turns out, while my basic assumptions about the food I was eating were correct, (cheeseburger = bad, salad = good,) there were some surprising realizations to be had. A favorite lunch for busy work days is McDonald’s Southwest Salad with grilled chicken, which I was pleasantly surprised to discover was much lower in calories than I’d imagined, even with a moderate amount of dressing. I was crushed, however, to find that two Taco Bell crunchy tacos and a Cheesy Gordita Crunch, Kyle and my’s favorite midnight snack, contains 75% of a day’s total calories. (Worth mentioning: the calorie information provided on Taco Bell’s website differs drastically from that on third party websites. And Taco Bell wasn’t the only restaurant guilty of creative number crunching. For what it’s worth.) And Five Guys, in all their yummy goodness, turned not to be quite as toxic as imagined. Don’t get me wrong, a Little Cheeseburger and half a Regular French Fry is still almost 1,000 calories, but it’s much smaller than the number I’d imagined.
For all my fascination, I have a love-hate relationship with this new information. On one hand, it’s great to see it when it confirms my good choices. I can order Panara’s super yummy Strawberry Poppyseed & Chicken salad, confident that I’m taking in less than 300 calories. And I can be proud of my regrettable-but-necessary decision to switch from Subway’s Spicy Italian sub to their Roast Beef sub, because I can see the difference it’s making. It’s not just an arbitrary feeling of guilt; there are numbers to back my decisions.
On the other hand, it’s forced me to come to terms with some of the poor choices that I make. Since living in the south, Kyle and I have an affinity for good bar-b-que. We love to have dinner at Smokey Bones, starting with an appetizer of Sweet Potato Stix and completing the meal with delicious platter of St Louis style ribs, pulled pork, mashed potatoes and gravy, and steamed broccoli. And sure, I knew it probably wasn’t the best meal for a person trying to skinny up, but I figured hey, nothing’s fried and I’m eating broccoli. How bad could it be? Well, last time we went, I did the math, and I discovered that it could be very, very bad. Just my entrée alone was more than an entire day’s worth of calories, and when you add the appetizer you’re looking at almost 2,000 calories! Not to mention the beer that clearly goes with it all. I was absolutely floored to see the damage I was doing to my body. How many hours of exercising had I undone in the name of meat? Next time, I think I’ll be ordering the grilled salmon.
There’s an ongoing debate as to the effectiveness of providing consumers with caloric information. One extreme says that if people only knew the truth about the nutrition of the food they ate they would make better decisions, and the whole country would be healthier, man. The other extreme says that people are going to eat what they want to eat, regardless of calorie count, and this is just another example of big-brother government trying to control our lives, ya dirty commie. As an average consumer interested in nutrition, my truth lies somewhere in the middle. I think having all this information has been a great thing. Does it sway my decisions and make me eat healthier? Sometimes. Sometimes I make bad choices anyway. But what it does do is force me to face my decisions and own them, and stop hiding behind my delusion. If I’m going to gorge myself on red meat and gravy, indulge in a caramel sundae, or fulfill my munchies with things in crunchy taco shells, I’m going to do so knowing what the consequences will be when I step on the scale tomorrow morning.