Chewing the fat

You could, if desperate to increase your waist size, clog your arteries and double your chin, pay a visit to the Cheesecake Factory and order the fried macaroni and cheese. Though merely an appetizer, this dish packs 1,570 calories and 69 grams of saturated fat into four crunchy, deep-fried orbs about the size of golf balls, slathered with marinara sauce and topped with grated cheese. Then again, you could just stay home and swallow a stick of butter.

As the Center for Science in the Public Interest pointed out, you'd be better off eating the butter.

But how's a consumer to know? For unless you live in New York City, King County, Wash. (Seattle), or a handful of other, smaller localities around the country, most chain restaurants near you are not required to provide calorie or nutritional information.

That's starting to change, and none too soon. This month California started mandating that its chain restaurants — about 17,000 locations statewide — provide on-site brochures listing calories, sodium, saturated fat and carbohydrates for each menu item. In 18 months, chains in California will have to list calorie counts directly on menus or menu boards, so diners can see them at a glance.

Massachusetts and Maine are moving in the same direction, and similar measures have been introduced in at least a dozen other states. Faced with this tidal wave, the restaurant industry last month dropped its long-standing opposition to listing calorie counts on menus, and it is backing federal legislation that would standardize and nationalize what threatens to become a hodgepodge of slightly differing state and local mandates. That measure is tied to sweeping health-care reform legislation in the Senate, so unfortunately full disclosure of calorie counts, while all but inevitable, may have to wait.

Some will moan about a nanny state; the real question is whether the requirements will come too late. Obesity is a nationwide epidemic; in California, it's the second-deadliest cause of preventable death, after smoking, and a third of the state's children are overweight. Chain restaurants, both fast food and full service, are prime contributors. Meanwhile, portion sizes are ballooning and Americans are spending nearly half their food budgets at restaurants.

In New York City, which pioneered calorie disclosure on fast-food menus, a large majority of patrons, shocked at the numbers they saw on the menus, changed their orders to favor less fattening items. If more Americans were confronted with those numbers, it would lead to healthier diets and a less obese nation.

— The Washington Post

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