Thursday, June 19, 2008

What's on the menu?

So, I think this ongoing debate in NYC re having nutrition information on menus or available in stores for consumers is interesting. An Associated Press story today says that the city is ready to fine chain restaurants that don't provide calorie counts on their products. I truly can see both sides of the argument.

I've been reading through the website at the National Restaurant Association, which opposes such "one-size-fits-all" mandates, and I respect their opinion, I really do. It's their job to advocate for positions that support their membership of professional chefs and restaurateurs and to fight against what they believe are unfair burdens placed on them. And, I respect that. Their position is that obesity and overweight should be addressed through education, not legislation, and that is a feasible argument.

I was trained to cook. And while it's not now what I do professionally, I do understand and appreciate first of all, that chefs are neither trained or certified nutritionists. That's not their job. Their job is to create tasty meals that people will enjoy and--because this is a business after all--pay for and come back again for. And, well, whatever they need to do to do that is fair game: butter, cream, pork fat, duck fat, deep friers, flour, sugar---the list goes on and on. And good food makes people happy; not everyone wants--nor should they be forced to--eat only salad and lean protein.

On the other hand, however, from the consumer point of view, how are eaters and diners supposed to educate themselves about the calorie content of restaurant foods if the restaurants don't provide this information? I know a fair amount about calories and fat, but even I didn't know what was a true portion size and what foods were good to eat and which ones were bad. I've learned so much from WW. And, I certainly didn't know--and still don't--which foods to eat, for example, at a fast food restaurant (see my travel story about Wendy's) and which were higher in calories. And I'm motivated! What about people who just don't really think about it very much and just order what sounds good to them?

Seriously, before I joined WW and started keeping track of points, I really had very little idea how much or little to eat day to day to lose weight. I just didn't know. Other people don't know either.

Also, when a diner orders a dish at a restaurant--whether it's fine dining or at a chain restaurant--he or she doesn't have any idea how a dish is made. They don't know that a meat might be sauteed in a high-calorie fat or that a sauce--even a light wine sauce--might be finished with butter or cream at the end. When you add in that portion sizes at restaurants are 3 to 10 times what is considered a "healthy" portion (a plate of pasta out could be as many as 4 or 5, if not more, cups!) and it's caloric doomsday for a lot of people.

Now, I know--and I completely believe--that people have got to take personal responsibility for themselves. And to that end, I support the restaurant association's stand against frivolous obesity lawsuits. But, I also think that today's diners need help and that the restaurant world has a responsibility to be, well, responsible to them.

How I like to think about this, however, is that this way of thinking presents an opportunity, not a burden, for restaurants to join in partnership with their diners toward healthier eating. Chefs want to create delicious food. Why can't they be inspired to create food that tastes good and that is good for you? I don't think this has to be an adversarial relationship; I truly believe it can be one that is mutually beneficial: people will, I really to believe, buy food that is low in calories and still tastes great. Just like we all have to be thinking about how to move ourselves around with alternative sources of fuel, so can we all start to think about how to feed ourselves without making ourselves fat. It's not bad.....just a different way of thinking.

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