Normally I’m All For The “Nanny State”….

Uncle AndrewUncle Andrew
Filed under: @ 11:00 am

Usually, I am a big fan of Big Government. I’m one of those folks who believe that government is in fact a good thing, and that citizens very often can use a little helping hand figuring out (or at least remembering) what is best for both themselves and their community. This country is still very young, and like all young’uns we need—dare I say, crave—boundaries. As such, I am most often a big booster for regulation and legislation in the public interest.

But only if I think it will actually do any good. Such is not the case, I fear, for King County’s newest edict upon its business community, an ordinance requiring restaurants to include calorie and nutritional information by every item on their menu. The rule will only affect “chain” restaurants; restaurants that have at least 10 stores.

While the idea of providing information to consumers whenever possible is generally a good one, I don’t believe that this legislation will result in a single lost ounce of fat among patrons of Northwest restaurants.

I tend to break food consumers down into two major groups: Don’t Know and Don’t Care. Don’t Knows have no idea what a calorie is, how many calories are too many, how calories from fat differ from calories from proteins differ from calories from complex carbohydrates, or what happens to all those extra calories in your Bloomin’ Onion when you don’t jump on the treadmill for four hours immediately after dinner. Don’t Knows have no framework of reference in which to put this information, and will most likely ignore it because they can’t fit the data into their own experience, and behave accordingly.

By contrast, Don’t Cares are at least vaguely aware of the actual definition of a calorie. (Or, as they are known to the rest of the world, kilocalories. What we generally think of as a “calorie”, the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of a cubic centimeter of water 1 degree Centigrade, is actually 1,000 calories. I was fascinated with the nutritional information shields on packaged foods in the UK during our recent trip because they actually listed the caloric content in kcal rather than calories. Makes sense, seeing as how this is the same country that is fond enough of science to put a double-helix of DNA on the back of their two-pound coin. But here in the States we call kilocalories “calories”, probably to distinguish ourselves from all that snotty Eurotrash with their Smart Cars and their metric system and their “re”s instead of “er”s.) Don’t Cares probably know that they should restrict their (kilo)caloric intake to a maximum of 2,200 per day. They have at least a basic grasp of the Food Pyramid (or rhombus, or dodecahedron or whatever they’re changed it to), and they know that in order to avoid gaining weight they have to burn off more calories than they take in, through a combination of diet and exercise. They just—you guessed it—don’t care, and behave accordingly.

One should not make any other assumptions about these two classes of consumers from the names I have assigned them. A Don’t Know is not necessarily a less intelligent person than others; (s)he simply does not have all of the tools at their disposal that they should. And even given the proper education, a Don’t Know may very well simply graduate into a Don’t Care. Just because one attains knowledge doesn’t mean that one will automatically use it to the best advantage.

Similarly, a Don’t Care is not necessarily less mature or far-sighted than others; (s)he has simply decided that this part of their life is not as important as other parts. Such a person might soberly and determinedly seek financial security, protection and prosperity for their loved ones, peace and order in the world, and still be digging their grave with their fork. It’s a matter of personal priorities.

I myself fit into the Don’t Care niche, with a codicil: Because of draconian measures I have taken to protect myself from the effects of diabetes, gout and spinal problems, my daily caloric intake is somewhere around 1600–1800 calories per day, so on those rare occasions where I eat out, I don’t put any restrictions on myself. I Don’t Care when I’m eating out because I care entirely too much the rest of the time….and behave accordingly.

(There is a third category of diner, of course: the Know and Cares. These are the people who meticulously choose the fuels that they let past the temple doors of their bodies. They are the vegan joggers, the breathitarian yoga devotees, the raw-food speed-walkers. In short, they are generally insufferable, and in any case are not likely to enter a chain restaurant such as Black Angus or The Bubba Gump Shrimp Company under any condition short of gunpoint. So they are not particularly germane to this discussion.)

If King County wants to affect the choices that people make in restaurants, then they should attack the very root of the problem and greatly expand nutrition education in our public schools. Our school system may be better than many at this, offering a relatively healthy menu for the kids and including a fair curriculum of nutritional information in the class. And our school districts have in recent years eliminated the sale of soda through vending machines in the K through 12 schools. (Replacing the Coke and Mountain Dew with juices and bottled waters has resulted in a serious dropoff in revenue from these machines, but in my opinion, the last thing a school district should have to worry about is making enough money off of vending machines to keep school programs alive.)

The next layer of the strategy has already begun, with a number of manufacturers of kid-oriented, yumtastic food-esque substances voluntarily withdrawing their advertising during prime children’s television hours. How effective any voluntary efforts by the sugary crap industry to hamstring itself will be—by definition—is another question entirely, but at least it’s something. Market forces would probably be the most effective form of influence, but as long as the Don’t Cares maintain their majority status this will probably not be in the cards, and government needs to step in on some level to help stem the tide of obesity-related health problems among children.

But the idea that putting a long, dizzying, comprehensive-yet-incomprehebsible list of ingredients and caloric data next to every item on the Applebee’s menu will result in any change in the average diner’s menu choices seems to fly in the face of both common sense and experience. How much did adding a warning label to cigarettes help to curb smoking? Not much. Though the graphic cigarette labels used in Canada seem to have a more intense effect than their text-only American counterparts. So I suppose the next step will be to place giant autopsy photos of clogged arteries, withered pancreases and impacted colons next each burger on the Red Robin menu, in order to make sure that people really understand what they are getting into.

I guess my feeling about this new policy is similar to my feelings about the recent smoking ban enacted in our state. Namely, if you are going to try to totally prohibit a particular substance or behavior, then at least have the sack to admit to what you’re doing, and not try to slip it under everyone’s radar by camouflaging your desired objective in a bunch of irrelevant and/or tangential didact. You might actually take steps toward achieving your goal as did the smoking ban; you might—as I suspect in this case—do nothing but generate an extra layer of operating expenses for local business for no good reason. Either way, you are addressing the problem from the wrong end. People don’t make their lifetime dietary decisions as they squeeze their oversized asses into the diner booth. They make them at home, at the dining room table or breakfast nook, perhaps while still in the high chair. That’s where the primary focus on nutrition education should lie.

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