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Menus may add calorie counts

Proposal would require some chain eateries in L.A. County to include a caloric breakdown for all their offerings.

August 07, 2008|Rene Lynch | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County, you're going on a diet whether you like it or not.

Convinced that you and the rest of California are -- how to put this nicely? -- too fat and getting fatter, government is taking unprecedented steps to watch what you put in your mouth.

In recent days, the state ordered restaurants to cook without artery-clogging trans fats. The Los Angeles City Council approved a ban on new fast-food restaurants in some parts of town. And on Thursday, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky announced a proposal that would -- hold on to your deep-fried Snickers -- put calorie counts on some of your menus.

"Most people do not have a clue how many calories they are taking in when they have a milkshake or a double hamburger with cheese and fries," Yaroslavsky said. "This is an incentive for people to make the right dietary choices."

The proposal would require chain restaurants in unincorporated parts of the county to include a caloric breakdown for all their offerings. The issue is expected to come before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday; the supervisors will be asked to call for the drafting of an ordinance. If all goes smoothly, the measure could be in place by the end of the year, Yaroslavsky said.

If the measure is successful, Los Angeles County would be following in the footsteps of New York and a handful of other municipalities nationwide that already have implemented calorie counts on the menus at major restaurant chains, or are taking steps to do so.

The California Restaurant Assn. does not oppose the measure, although it has concerns about how it would be carried out.

"We understand that consumers want it," said Jot Condie, president and chief executive of the organization, which represents 22,000 chain outlets in the state.

But he said it should be up to restaurants to decide how best to make this information readily available to consumers. He said he also wants to see a uniform policy applied throughout the state to cut down on retailer and consumer confusion.

Others say the new proposal wrongly assumes that government knows better than the people it is paid to serve.

"All three of these policies are forms of second-guessing consumers," said Jacob Sullum, a senior editor and syndicated columnist at Reason magazine. "If there was an overwhelming demand for conspicuous calorie counts, then businesses would respond to that. The fact that you don't see it indicates that they are not really clamoring to have that information thrust in their faces."

Kevin McCarney, founder of Poquito Mas, a Los Angeles-area Mexican food chain, begs to differ.

His chain is too small to be affected by the calorie proposal, which would apply only to chains with 15 or more outlets in the state. But McCarney says he's going to follow it anyway.

"Our clients are pretty sophisticated -- they want to have this information," he said. "Our food is pretty clean to begin with. Our nutritional analyses will prove to be very good."

Joining Yaroslavsky in the proposal is Supervisor Mike Antonovich, as well as Los Angeles County's director of public health, Dr. Jonathan E. Fielding, who has long been a proponent of posting calories on menus, no matter how unappetizing it might be.

When discussing the issue, Fielding likes to start with a quiz: Which McDonald's items have the most calories: two Big Macs, two Egg McMuffins, a large shake or four hamburgers? Almost everyone points to the pair of Big Macs. But it's the shake, with nearly 1,200 calories.

"Everyone is shocked by that," Fielding said. "It's not intuitive. That's why we have to give people this information. My hope is that it will help them change their food choices. People are still going to eat out. But hopefully they will make good choices."

Nonetheless, Fielding said, this is just one step toward combating the epidemic of obesity. People still need to watch what they eat and how much they eat, and increase their activity level, he said.

Yaroslavsky said he hopes the measure will expand to Los Angeles County's municipalities, including Los Angeles itself, which can "opt in" and adopt it too. The proposal does not cover smaller restaurants and chains because it would be too difficult to provide accurate calorie counts in kitchens where menus and ingredients are constantly changing.

It would be up to affected restaurants to bear the cost of providing nutritional breakdowns to consumers. Still to be determined is how such an ordinance would be enforced. In New York, restaurants are fined for failure to comply.

Yaroslavsky said he isn't trying to ruin the dining-out experience; rather to whittle the public's waistline.

He said health problems brought on by obesity, particularly the troubling trend of teenagers diagnosed with Type 2 adult-onset diabetes, are one of the biggest -- and costliest -- challenges facing government.

Yaroslavsky has had his own battle with obesity. As a youngster he ran track and as a young adult he kept thin and trim. But at a certain point he started to gain weight -- and continued to gain -- and he too was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.

Now Yaroslavsky is an avid five-days-a-week runner who lost weight in part by calculating every calorie he consumes.

"People don't want to be fat or obese. Left to their own devices, people want to be healthy," Yaroslavsky said. "Menu labeling is a powerful education tool. And information is power in the dietary world."

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rene.lynch@latimes.com

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