Just Sayin'

Paul Adair is a 21-year Germantown resident, retired scientist, writer, and lecturer.

Better-Informed Customers

Political, Quality of Life, Healthcare

There are many great benefits resulting from the Affordable Care Act. For example, students up to 26 are covered on their parents insurance. There is no rejection of coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. There is no lifetime cap on medical coverage. In states that care about their citizens, all people with income less than 138% of poverty level are covered under Medicaid. And individuals between that level and 400% of poverty who purchase insurance on the exchanges are eligible for income tax credits, making coverage more affordable.

In addition to these welcome changes, the ACA emphasizes preventive care. As part of that focus, ACA-compliant policies pay the full cost of a range of preventive-care procedures and vaccinations.

And there is a less publicized, but very important, preventive care policy change that will soon go into effect. Chain restaurants (with 20 or more sites) will be required to post nutritional information on their menus. The Food and Drug Administration is expected to release the labeling guidelines early this year. The guidelines have been delayed for some time in order to determine how to best handle special cases such as vending machines, grocery delis, and pizza joints.

Nutrition labeling has been required on most supermarket food items since 1990, with much benefit to the consumer. However, restaurants were at that time exempted from the same requirements.

Many chain restaurants have already adopted menu calorie labeling on their own. California mandated it in 2009, followed by New Jersey in 2010. Other smaller entities, such as New York City, have instituted food labeling laws. The implementation of the national law will allow restaurants to deal with a uniform set of US standards instead of a complex patchwork.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 69% of Americans are considered to be overweight or obese (body mass index of 25 or higher). Fully 36% of adults are considered obese (BMI of 30 or higher). These numbers are up substantially since 1960's, when only 13% of adults were obese. As a country, only Mexico surpasses us in percentage of obese people.

Carrying too much poundage leads to a raft of health problems , including a higher incidence of type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, and some cancers. Clearly, a national emphasis on preventive care should not ignore the health risks inherent in being overweight.

In focusing on the public health issue of excessive weight, restaurant meals must be part of the dialogue. According to the USDA, food eaten away from home now accounts for 41% of food dollars and a hefty 32% of Calorie intake. The new menu labeling requirements will give those watching their weight the information needed to make wise choices.

The recommended daily Calorie intake depends on sex, age, and level of activity. A moderately active male of age range 56-60 needs about 2400 Calories a day. Eating just one meal at a restaurant can account for a significant chunk of that caloric requirement.

For example, a lunch of a personal Club pizza at a national pizza chain can give you 1320 Calories. Wash it down with a 100 Cal Coke, and you are up to 59% of your recommended daily intake. And don't fool yourself by ordering a salad. A full Waldorf chicken salad will bring you a hefty 1230 Calories. Of course, there are lower calorie items on the menu. Proper menu labeling will allow you to make an informed decision. If worried about your weight, you can steer toward the lower caloric items.

If you go to McDonald's, it is nice to currently have the menu information that guides weight-watchers clear of the 1150 Cal Big Breakfast with hotcakes and toward a 300 Cal sausage burrito. It will be nice to know that at Chili's, you might want to avoid an 1860 Cal Bacon Ranch Steak Quesadilla and try a 390 Cal Chicken Fajita, instead.

Menu labeling is wildly popular among the American public. Depending on how the poll question is worded, between 67% and 84% of consumers support menu labeling. Health and consumer advocacy groups such as the American Heart Association, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the American Academy of Pediatrics also endorse menu labeling.

However, there are those who think that providing nutritional information to diners leads to the dreaded “nanny state”. Fox “News” and the usual cast of right wing propagandists have taken-on the anti-labeling cause. (Of course, in their universe, nothing associated with Obamacare could possibly have any merit.) The far-right Heritage Foundation is especially vociferous in its opposition to providing consumers information on what they are purchasing and ingesting.

The right should just relax. People can still eat what they want, no matter how unhealthy. The law does nothing to limit portion size, nor should it. No “food police” will come around to your table and ticket you for your gastronomic excesses. Anyone who cares to can still eat themselves into an early grave, if that is their thing. The law simply empowers people by providing them with accurate information.

The menu labeling provision of the Affordable Care Act is just one more way that America's health will be favorably affected by the legislation. Menu labeling will allow consumers to make informed choices. The better informed consumers are, the better the economic marketplace can work to provide us all with healthy dining options.



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