The public debate over health care has become increasingly contentious. There is a group of people that doesn't want the government to be involved in anything having to do with their health. They seem to conveniently forget about Medicare, but that's their right. I recently learned that there is a proposed provision in the health care bill called The Affordable Health Choices Act. This has to do with insisting that restaurants put on their menus caloric and other nutritional information about the food they serve. Why haven't I seen crazed people (some with their precious legal guns), screaming their opposition to the government telling them what to eat? I'm surprised I haven't seen angry signs, saying things like, "I'll be Unhealthy If I Want To," or "Feds: Keep Your Hands Off My Fat."
The proposal is not as simple as one would hope. As of now, the bill only applies to chains with twenty or more restaurants. These restaurants must post calories on their menus and provide other information such as fat and sodium content if customers request it. Small restaurants claim the new menus would cause too much of a hardship for them. Needless to say, the chain restaurants don't think this is fair. So we have the weird situation in which Domino's Pizza, Del Taco, and Jack in the Box, among similar places, are calling for a plan that would give more nutritional information to more people. This is like the tobacco companies saying, "No, those warnings on the packs aren't scary enough. Let's just say these things cause cancer, and you'd be a fool to smoke them."
Let's assume that they work out the details and come up with a menu labeling bill that makes sense to all of the restaurant owners. If it helps people lose weight and avoid things like diabetes and obesity - which is the purpose- I think it's a great idea. There's nothing wrong with educating people about food.
But I'm concerned about how this is going to change the American dining experience.
Let's say you and your spouse go out to dinner for your anniversary. You go to that special, favorite restaurant of yours. Do you really want to see how many calories are in that item that you've dreamt of for weeks? Will the two of you have a good time if, after the waiter describes a delicious dinner, you stop him and ask, "How many grams of sodium are in it?" Will you skip that special dessert if you see that it contains more calories than a marathon runner burns? Will the two of you end up just ordering salads, and then uttering those words that have become part of our modern vocabulary - "and I'd like the dressing on the side, please."
This may take some of the fun and all of the romance out of eating. Maybe the restaurants should print up two sets of menus: one for those who want the information and one for those who don't. Of course, it's quite possible that those who don't want to know how many calories are in the Chocolate Surprise are those who need this information the most.
Maybe they should add an "every once in a while clause." This would entitle us to go out to dinner every once in a while, and order from old-fashioned menus without the nutritional information. This would apply to holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries. And I guess it should apply to days when you're feeling really good. Of course, you might also want to enjoy food when you're feeling really bad. And then there's... Okay, okay, maybe the "every once in a while clause" isn't such a practical idea.
Obviously, when I think about the statistics about how unhealthy we eat and what the costs are both in terms of health and money, I'm for this plan. These harsh realities outweigh my concerns about fun no longer being part of eating.
But I am concerned that this kind of thing can get out of hand. Food regulations are a greasy slope. This bill may lead to people ordering without even mentioning the food, and just saying things like: "I'll have the 13.28 grams of fat, 453 milligrams of sodium, and 28 grams of carbohydrates." If we ever get to that point, I'll rebel and work to repeal the bill. Or at least, I'll ask for a side order of 39 grams of sugar.
Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Home Improvement" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his website at lloydgarver.com and his podcasts on iTunes.