In proposing new rules to better inform consumers of how many calories they eat, the Food and Drug Administration got it partly right.
The FDA wants to require businesses that sell ready-to-eat food at 20 or more outlets to conspicuously post calorie counts near food items, and provide extended nutritional data such as fat, cholesterol and sodium counts — all starting in 2012.
Sadly, businesses whose primary revenue comes from services other than selling food — movie theaters, amusement parks, airplanes, bowling alleys and hotels for example — are exempted, ignoring too many places where people eat frequently. And alcohol is unfortunately excluded from the rules. But, still, the FDA is off to a darn good start.
Understand that posting calorie counts is important, but not for immediate weight loss or to nudge people into eating healthier — as a society, we're not there yet. People cannot make quick mental calculations about what a 920-calorie Big Mac and medium fries mean to their overall daily food intake if they don't know what their personal caloric needs are.
For example, to a 6-foot-5 25-year-old man who exercises three times a week, that meal is nutritionally unbalanced but acceptable every once in a while. For a 5-foot-5 woman who doesn't exercise as much — only 43 percent of women age 25 and older met the federal aerobic physical activity guidelines in 2009 — that's about half the calories needed for an entire day and, with rare exceptions, a poor choice.
But the chances of the average person knowing this are slim. A 2010 USA Today survey found that 63 percent of respondents didn't know how many calories they should consume in a day to maintain their current weight and another 25 percent couldn't even guess. Only 12 percent knew how many calories they need to live healthfully.
That's why widespread posting of calorie counts now will be so important to a growing percentage of the population. Knowing how much energy is in everything you eat sets the stage for the unavoidable day a doctor finally declares the need to start watching your weight — specifically, your daily calorie intake.
Who can attest to this? Any of the 18.5 million adults and the 215,000 children who have been diagnosed with diabetes, America's fastest-growing disease. They count calories and other nutritional information at every meal because they have no other choice.
And though early studies have found no correlation between calories posted on menus and a curb on consumption or on obesity rates — yet — we're just now at the point when awareness of food's caloric content is becoming widespread and has the potential to make a difference.
The ability to make healthy eating choices will come after years of being exposed to in-your-face food information. And that's why it's OK that the FDA only got it partially right. If the proposal becomes law, as expected, this will be a great first step in teaching a country how to avoid eating itself to death.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.