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on September 17, 2007

Do we need the ‘calorie police’?

Let us not seek “quick fixes” through piecemeal (no pun intended) legislation.

A recent ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Holwell, striking the requirement for New York City restaurants to post the caloric content of servings on menus was based on First Amendment considerations. The original rule dating to July, mandated by New York City will be appealed as the National Association of County and City Health Officials and cooperating state and U.S. associations of professionals consider that the measure is an important component of a program to reduce obesity. Currently 14 States and three large metropolitan areas have similar bills before their legislatures relating to posting of calorie levels, with an emphasis on Quick Serve Restaurants (QSRs).

The statistics assembled by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) relating to both childhood and adult obesity are incontrovertible and alarming. Incidence rates have apparently tripled among children over the past 20 years with profound implications for future quality of life, longevity and cost of providing health care in adulthood. That there is cause for concern and the need for corrective action is without question. Our challenge is to determine actual direct and contributory causes and to formulate and implement the most cost-effective responses to the problem. It is evident that changes in lifestyle occasioned by urbanization, parents pursuing multiple jobs, lack of exercise, sedentary recreational activities and a move from participatory to spectator sports have reduced caloric expenditure in our young citizens. To blame “fast food” for all our problems is both simplistic and verging on sophistry.

Recognizing their vulnerability, the QSRs have introduced “healthy alternatives” to traditional but popular meals with high caloric and fat content. The poultry industry has played a significant role in innovating chicken and egg products to displace conventional comfort and convenience foods including burgers and fries. McDonalds Corporation has been an industry leader in marketing “Happy Meals” incorporating chicken, vegetable, fruit and low-fat ingredients. Burger King is introducing “Kids Meals” with apple slices substituted for fries, resulting in elimination of 200 calories and 13g of fat per serving.

Our regulatory agencies including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have an obligation to remove obviously unwholesome, adulterated or toxic additives, compounds or ingredients from our tables. Universities, professional associations and public health authorities have the responsibility to educate consumers and to encourage both sensible nutrition as well as lifestyles which promote acceptable Body Mass Index (BMI)  values. Knee-jerk legislation such as banning erection of QSRs near schools, imposing calorie taxes and other distortions of the right to choose are flat wrong. Comprehensive approaches are required to address and resolve the problem of obesity. These should include promotion of exercise, presuming that facilities are available in community centers and schools. Reintroduction of Physical Education at appropriate levels is required in the curriculums of our schools. The education of children, teens, young adults and parents of all ethnic groups should be enhanced concerning intelligent and positive decisions on activity and food choices.

Any approach which runs contrary to the laws of supply and demand and which rely on legislative mandates and enforcement to achieve societal outcomes will not be effective. We have tried prohibition of alcohol and it did not work. We are engaged in a loosing struggle against illicit drug use with legislation of questionable value and dominated by the law of unintended consequences. Let us not make the same errors with institutional food. We need to promote and apply information provided by professionals representing health and allied fields in focused and directed programs.  Let us not seek “quick fixes” through piecemeal (no pun intended) legislation.
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