Monday, December 1, 2014

The government is going to help you count those calories

     Food is fuel. Literally. Energy is locked in the proteins, fats and carbohydrates that we eat, and our body, acting like an engine, burns them, combining them with oxygen to create heat and work.
     Quite powerful fuel, actually. A single slice of bread contains enough energy to bring a quart of cold water to a boil.
     The potential energy in food is represented with a concept we call “calories,” a word certain to make most dieters flinch, evoking as it does the endless struggle and frequent failure that is dieting.
     Last week the Food and Drug Administration announced sweeping changes in its rules, requiring chain restaurants, movie theaters and pizzerias to post the calories in their fare. Whereas once we dwelt in blissful ignorance about what we eat when going out — a third of Americans’ calories are consumed outside of the home — now we’d know.
     Nutritionists hailed this as an important step toward reversing our society’s steady slide toward universal obesity.
     Conservatives, of course, damned this as tyranny. “A shocking power grab” is how the Heritage Foundation described it.
     Of course, these were the same people aghast at Michelle Obama’s efforts to keep schoolkids from getting fatter than they already are, which is just plain sense, if you consider us to be a nation of united citizens whose fates are intertwined, where we all benefit from encouraging healthful habits.
     But if we're all just isolated individuals, then there is a definite buzzkill aspect to being told how many calories are in our indulgences. I used to enjoy polishing off a bucket of popcorn at a movie, since popcorn is not that fattening if you don't put butter on it: 50 calories a cup. Or so I told myself.
     But there are 20 cups in one of those movie buckets, which means you're eating 1,000 calories, plus enough salt to hire a Roman legion. Now I smuggle in one of those 110 calorie bags of Trader Joe's kettle corn and eat them slowly, one kernel at a time.
     Although you should never underestimate the genius people have to ignore what's good for them. Given the greatly increased odds of an early, gasping, agonizing death, nearly a quarter of Americans still smoke.
     But that's down from nearly half, due to 50 years of relentless public information, and telling the public exactly what they're eating can have a similar beneficial effect. I've always been prone to fat, and counted calories for, gee, 40 years, off and on, not because it's a guarantee of slimness, but because it forces you to think not only about what you're eating, but how much of it you're eating. You have to eat fewer calories than you expend in order to lose weight.
     In anticipation of the change, some chains are already posting calories, and it does affect customer behavior, at least mine. When at Au Bon Pain, I grab a Thai Chicken Salad (190 calories, 350 with the dressing). If I tire of the Thai Salad, and my hand strays toward the Southwest Salad, and I see it has 160 more calories - must be the avocado - and yank back my hand. Thai once again.
     A reminder that calories are only one aspect. I would eat fewer calories if I skipped that salad and went over to McDonald's for a cheeseburger (290 calories). But a cheeseburger is gone in five bites, while a salad not only takes more time to consume, but has more nutritional oomph that stays with you.
     I'm not expecting too dramatic an effect on America's waistline. You have to care. McDonald's has been posting the calories of its menu for years, and it's a safe bet that the people you see in line there aren't racing home to record how many calories that Big Mac, large fries and a milkshake cost them (1,600 calories, or about a day's recommended intake for a small woman).
     Our oldest boy came home from college in California last week, and of course asked his mother to prepare his favorite meal of hers: Lou Malnati's deep dish spinach pizza.
     Deep dish pizza packs a wallop. I estimated a slice is about 500 calories (it's actually 550, according to their website, a reminder that people tend to estimate low). I made sure there was plenty of salad, so as not to fill up on pizza. A good idea, in theory.
     So I had my slice. We were all sitting there, chatting happily. The others were still working on their pizza. (Another diet tip. Eat slowly). So I took the pizza slicer and cut just the smallest sliver of a piece. And another. To make it worse, my younger son, who watches himself like a hawk, had his one slice and stopped. Willpower.
     Not me. Sliver by sliver until I had eaten three, count 'em, three slices: 1,650 calories. Dutifully recorded that night, in sorrow and shame. Ah well. A skirmish lost in the battle that never ends. There's always tomorrow.

     Postscript: The very first email I received in response to this column, which goes on to mention sneaking sensibly-sized bags of popcorn into movie theaters, was this:
     As the Executive Vice President of the National Association of Concessionaires I am aghast that you "smuggle" snacks into a movie theatre from Trader Joes. First of all it is against the policy of the establishment and against Health Department regulations in numerous municipalities.
                                     Daniel C. Borschke, FASAE, CAE                                     Executive Vice President                                     National Association of Concessionaires
At which I smiled, shook my head, and replied: "Given your job, I would expect nothing less. Thanks for writing."

Pies courtesy of Janice Sackett, except the key lime, which my son Kent baked.


  1. Mr. Steinberg writes:

    “”””Of course, these were the same people aghast at Michelle Obama’s efforts to keep schoolkids from getting fatter than they already are, which is just plain sense, if you consider us to be a nation of united citizens whose fates are intertwined, where we all benefit from encouraging healthful habits.”””

    When you come to think about it the RELIGIOUS RIGHT has a lot of ideas about “encouraging healthful habits.” For example:

    Only sex within marriage (and I will include SS marriage) would certainly cut down on the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies.

    And since my fate and Mr. Steinberg’s fate are so intertwined I have a lot of ideas on how he can live his life more productively and be more useful to society. (I say this with a smile and I am sure he can say the same about me. But that is the “rub.”)

    Actually President and Mrs. Obama are great parents and were in a unique position to preach to the black community the benefits of conceiving and raising children within the institution of marriage. Instead Michelle Obama took the easy way out by making “fatness” her cause.

    Finally --I believe a slice of bread contains enough energy to flatten an entire city block. Just say-in!

    1. The problem with Michelle Obama's school foods is that the kids won't eat it, it's apparently tasteless.
      So they throw it away & buy other stuff to eat.

    2. I haven't really investigated what she deems healthy. I suspect fruits and vegetables but I doubt she is making up the menus. There are ways to make foods tasty. I am guessing the kids are complaining too much.

  2. The conservatives against this are the same ones who responded to campaign finance reform with the argument "don't regulate it, just promote disclosure of information and let people judge for themselves. So yeah, it's pretty hypocritical.

    I look forward to quoting the line "if you consider us to be a nation of united citizens whose fates are intertwined" in the future.

  3. A-not-A:

    Not hypocritical – just wrong – and we admitted that. We never realized that the government would use the IRS as a cudgel against those not in power. There is a very strong possibility that any governmental agency regulating election financing will be used to punish political enemies. For example Edwards borrowed money to pay-off his pregnant girlfriend. Yet he was criminally prosecuted for violating campaign financing laws. Democratic prosecutors also conducted a witch hunt against Republican donors in Wisconsin.

    This “intertwined stuff” or it “takes a village” is just plain medieval. And the Religious Right is just as guilty of it as liberals/progressives. They believe same sex marriage somehow sets a bad example for heterosexual marriage .

    This “intertwined” stuff simply means that my business is your business and your business is my business. This is certainly not conducive to LIBERTY.

    So what are we to have – a 50% sales tax on Malnati deep dish pizza? Be careful for what you wish.

  4. Jerry, let me be the first to congratulate you for not somehow dragging black-on-black crime into this.

    Neil--Seriously, how long are you going to put up with this guy?

    1. Since we've never broached the subject before, I should point out the standards for reader comments. I ask that they be polite, or polite-ish, or not dripping with contempt. I ask they not insult each other too much, or me at all. If I limited readership of this blog to people who completely agree with me it would be a narrow readership indeed. It is not my job to engage in hand-to-hand combat with readers who are able to type. I've had my say; they get theirs. I don't find Jerry outside the realm of acceptability.

  5. Since it has become obligatory for First Ladies to adopt causes, Mrs. Obama has chosen wisely to focus on better nutrition and health. It affects everybody, although Afro-Americans will benefit disproportionately, since they suffer the most from life-shortening diseases. And, being a young, vigorous woman with an engaging personality, she's good at it.

  6. "not to mention enough salt to hire a Roman legion" Swell reference!

    I'm on the losing end of the same battle that our erudite host is waging. And learning the calorie and fat counts associated with certain foods has certainly been beneficial, though not beneficial enough, sadly. : ( Interestingly (to me, though to nobody else, I realize), Neil manages to hit on what I consider both of my "exception" foods. Movie popcorn, of which I'm still inclined to wolf down way too much, despite knowing better, and pizza. I sometimes consider it a small achievement to LIMIT myself to 3 slices, alas. Starting with the idea that I might only have one would be, well, a non-starter! Fortunately, I've never seen the nutrition info for gyros posted anywhere!

    The biggest eye-opener to me, when they started labeling foods, was the amount of fat and saturated fat in pot-pies. I used to consider those to almost be a healthy option -- chicken, vegetables, what's not to like? Ah, but that delectable crust... Had to pretty much drop those from the rotation. Speaking of crusts, you've selected another fine photo to accompany the blog post. Put me down for a slice of the pecan and whatever that lattice-work one is! Why, those look like they've been picked out of a contest among thousands for a food-magazine spread. : )

    1. I stopped eating chicken pot pies when I visited a factory where they were made.

  7. It's against local health regulations to bring in your own food to a theater?
    OK Borschke, tell us exactly what municipalities have that regulation.
    I'll bet anything, the movie theaters in that town paid off the city or health dept. to create that law!

  8. Folks:

    I thank Mr. Steinberg for the “vote of acceptability.”

    I do not want to be a 180 degree contrarian on the subject – but I believe eating should be one of the great pleasures of life. I simply think it is a waste of one’s life to fret over each morsel one puts into his or her mouth. And there is no adequate substitute for butter.

    I believe the food industry and the advertising industry are all too happy to stoke up the paranoia with respect to eating. The scam is to create a need and then create a product to fill it.

    So the question should be how to mitigate some of the harmful effects of eating. I use portion size and vigorously pursue forms of exercise that I find pleasurable. Of course one should have a yearly physical and listen to one’s doc if he says your blood in the test tube looks like schmaltz floating atop beet soup.

    When I was young cars were the hot item as was traveling in that jet plane. Now it is personal electronics. I suggest that personal electronics will soon become a bulk commodity much like refrigeration, air conditioning, and electricity.

    The real trick in life is to find substance and meaning. Do not be afraid to disregard advertising and the latest styles. That is just an advertising scam.

    1. I agree, Jerry. It seems the more we obsess about calories, the more weight we seem to gain. It's a cliche, but "all in moderation" is still the key.

    2. Eating is and should be pleasurable, but overeating clearly has bad consequences, and I see nothing wrong with the goverment or anyone else giving us information that will help us avoid them. Having worked in advertising I know what it can and can't do, and believing that it controls our lives to the extent you suggest strikes me as a good definition of paranoia.

      And I spread a yogurt based margarine on my morning toast. Tastes as good as butter and has far fewer calories.

    3. Sandy,

      "All in moderation" may well be the key, but it's easier said than done, in my experience. : )

  9. Those pies are works of art, who could possibly refuse a slice or two or three. Regarding Neil's postscript., I too sneak in a small bag of pretzels or popcorn or candy sometimes at the movie theater, despite being shamed by my aghast movie companions. I draw the line at beverages, however :)

  10. Mr. Evans:

    Interesting comment.

    I am reminded of the T.S. Elliot poem which reads in part:

    I am no prophet – and here’s no great matter;
    I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
    And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
    And in short, I was afraid.

    And would it have been worth it, after all,
    After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
    Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
    Would it have been worth while,
    To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
    To have squeezed the universe into a ball
    To roll it toward some overwhelming question,


    And would it have been worth it, after all,
    Would it have been worth while,
    After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
    After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor-
    And this, and so much more?—


    I grow old ...I grow old...
    I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

    Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
    I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
    I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

    I do not think that they will sing to me.

  11. Neil,

    I can understand why you received that letter about taking snacks to the movies. I thought that snacks were one of the ways that theaters make enough money to stay in business given how the studios are doing their best to limit what they pay theater owners.


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