Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Good Sense Not on the Menu

We haven't spent much time on the other Health Department proposal-the requirement that restaurants that are already posting calorie information post this information, in the same text size, right next to each menu listing. All of those who are in favor of this form of disclosure point to the fact that it will help address the obesity problem, particularly in low income neighborhoods where it has become epidemic.

One point that has not been made, however, is the fact that caloric information has been available on packaged food in supermarkets for the past thirty years!-and in all this time apparently the information has had little or no effect on those who overeat and become obese. Which is exactly the point that Lenore Skenazy makes today in her column in the Daily News.

Skenazy scoffs at the idea that the calorie info ("even on those already number-jumbled menu boards above the counter") will have any positive impact: "As if this will do any good, other than budding anorexics." The point she's making is a clear one-the folks going to McDonalds, just like those that are going to Le Cirq, are not going "for spa food."

Skenazy goes on to make a point that no one else has made: the posting of this kind of caloric information will only increase the kind of obsessional behavior around eating that has led to the other food epidemic-anorexia and bulimia. Don't take her word on this, the opinion comes from Dr. Harry Brandt, the former director of the eating disorders program at the National Institutes of Health.

AS Dr. Brandt indicates, "The more people calculate and fret, the weirder their eating habits become. Some binge, some starve." The idea here is that eating in this country has become about a lot more than satisfying one's hunger.

Which points to the fact that the way to address eating disorders of all kinds lies more with the underlying psycho-social issues around food, and no amount of posted calorie information will change this an iota. We need to work on this "hearts and minds" side of the equation-what the economists call the demand side. The creation of a more overarching regulatory environment is not the correct approach, and is doomed to be an expensive failure.