Wednesday, March 4, 2009

You want the truth? You can't handle the truth!!

Yesterday, I put on my nicest suit, handed Ryan over to Daddy (aka Mr. Mom) for the day, and travelled to Annapolis, Maryland to testify on behalf of House Bill 601: legislation that would make all chain restaurants (fast food, not mom & pop shops) put the calorie count of each item on their menu boards. I walked into a huge hearing room full of 40 state delegates who had the power to keep the bill in committee or send it to the Statehouse for a vote. I wanted to share with you the written testimony I submitted. Here it goes...

Maryland House of Delegates
Health & Government Operations Committee
House Office Building, Room 241
6 Bladen St., Annapolis, MD 21401

Dear Chairman Hammen and members of the Committee:

My name is Karen *****, and I’m a Maryland mom in support of Delegate Niemann’s menu labeling legislation (House Bill 601). I’ve also struggled to maintain a healthy weight throughout most of my adult life. Over the last five months, through mindful eating and moderate exercise, I’ve lost 29 lbs. I’m a new mom with a young baby, and my life is both fuller and more frenetic than ever. I need every resource available to help me stay on track. I want to be a good role model for my son, as well as to stay healthy to see all that he will accomplish in his life. For me and for so many others, staying on top of what we put in our mouths every day helps keep us accountable and able to stave off weight related illnesses. For this reason, I believe it is imperative that Maryland pass HB 601 to ensure that chain restaurants show the calorie counts of every item sold on their menu boards.

Whether I’m working to lose weight or to maintain a healthy weight, I look at calorie intake and output like a daily budget. When I make my food choices, I often think of them as line items. For instance, I have 500 calories to spend on breakfast. That breakfast needs to keep my hunger at bay for three or four hours before I eat again. When I enter an establishment, Starbucks for example, I want to be guided to make the best choice that I can for those 500 calories. If I see that one small muffin is equal in calories to a bowl of oatmeal with dried fruit, I know immediately that the oatmeal will get me to lunch. Alternatively, the muffin will most likely keep me satiated for only an hour. I’ve found that the key to staying committed to a healthy weight is not being hungry. I can accomplish this by making the right food choice for every meal and snack.

It is not enough for this information to be provided on a web site or for customers to have to ask for it in a brochure. Recently I visited a Panera restaurant. Since I hadn’t visited one for a while, I went online to research the options I had. I chose at least 5 menu items I liked that fit within my calorie budget and figured I’d make the final choice when I arrived. To my disappointment, NONE of the items I picked was available. And, of course, there was no nutritional information on the menu boards. With my baby son in tow and in need of his bottle, I needed to make a fast decision and chose a salad which did not look appetizing. In fact, it wasn’t appealing in taste or presentation. This particular experience was one I thought I had planned for well. There are times when I’m in an area I’m not familiar with or I’m stuck at a mall and have limited food choices. These are times when I’m hungry, and I haven’t had the opportunity to plan ahead. In these instances, calorie counts listed on menu boards are my only option to make good decisions. Of course, these are rarely available, and I must limit my food later in the day to make up for undesirable choices earlier. I’ll never forget the time I came home and searched the web to find that the single slice of Sbarro pizza I had eaten contained not only 710 calories, but also 27 grams of fat! Not only that, but the Sbarro website does not display this information. I had to search online for other websites that provided it. Because I do not have access to this important nutrition information, I cannot return to these restaurants until it is made available on their menus.

One stunning fact that is clear to me time and time again is how the power of knowledge affects our perception, as well as our decisions. For years, we’ve been introduced to items like 7 Eleven’s Big Gulp and McDonald’s Supersize fries. Our personal perceptions of appropriate portions were lost when these items became the norm. The simple solution is to offer nutritional information that is accessible and easy for everyone to see. Sometimes basic awareness will lead a person to take the action necessary to make one’s health a priority. In addition, the helpful sign nearby that explains that a 2,000 calorie daily diet is the general rule of thumb for healthy living will give additional perspective to the diner. Perhaps then 388 calories (or approximately 1/5 of an adult’s total calorie needs per day!) for a Big Gulp of soda will seem outrageous to most customers.

With all of this in mind, the restaurants that provide nutritional information on their menus have gained my loyalty. Isn’t creating customer loyalty the whole point of providing a service or a product? Shouldn’t this be in the business plan of all chain restaurants? By providing this information, I have a sense of good will toward the restaurateurs. They are showing me that they care about my health and that of my family. Clearly, they want me to return often.

Finally, as a new mom, I’ve been inundated with retailers telling me which formula is nutritionally the most sound, which bottle is the safest, and even which bassinet and crib will help prevent SIDS. Every commercial, every product packaging, and every radio jingle, promises to keep my child healthy and thriving. So tell me, why is this promise any less important when dining out? In the supermarket, I pick organic foods with wholesome ingredients and limited sugar. I’m able to do this because I read labels on each item before I buy it. Doesn’t it just make good sense for me to continue making these informed choices when ordering at chain restaurants? In conclusion, I need this information presented in a way that I find useful. Juggling a baby, a diaper bag and toys while leafing through a brochure just will not cut it. I need the nutritional information prominently presented next to the item I’m ordering.

I urge you to support HB 601.