Baseball is a numbers game, and few teams produce more impressive stats than the New York Yankees. Their new stadium opened in 2009 and promptly delivered the team’s 27th World Series win. To stroll amid the sights and smells of the food vendors is to see another legacy at play, one that will linger for a lifetime in the hearts of Yankee fans.
Nathan’s Famous foot-long beef hotdog clocks in at 500 calories before condiments. That’s one-quarter of the roughly 2,000 calories you need in a day. At Moe’s, the “nachos supreme” set you back 1,410 calories. Elsewhere, a jumbo popcorn is 1,484 calories, and the souvenir bucket is 2,473. Add a couple of beers (286 calories for a large Beck’s) and you see why, when the Yanks moved from their circa-1920s stadium, they widened the seats by as much as two inches.
In the Big Apple you know in a New York minute what your food costs—in dollars and in calories. Both numbers have equal prominence on the menus and menu boards of the city’s chain restaurants—by order of the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. It’s an attempt to stem a frightening increase in obesity, an epidemic also killing Canadians and compromising the health care system. Unlike in Canada, there is political will in the U.S. to take action. By next spring, the Obama administration’s sweeping health care reform bill requires U.S. restaurant chains to post calorie counts on menu boards, drive-throughs and vending machines. It was one of the few non-contentious parts of the bill—a recognition by legislators, and the American restaurant industry, of an anti-obesity measure whose time has come.
Not so in Canada. Don’t expect to find a quick, easy calorie count on either the restaurant or national political menu anytime soon—despite what the Public Health Agency of Canada calls “an alarming increase” in obesity and attendant health problems. And even though measures similar to the U.S. law are endorsed by the Dietitians of Canada, the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, the Ontario Medical Association, by weight-loss specialists, by the B.C. government and by Dr. Kellie Leitch, a federal adviser on healthy children and youth.
Leitch’s 2008 report, Reaching for the Top, dealt extensively with overweight youth. The prominent display of calories at restaurants was among her recommendations to then health minister Tony Clement. As a pediatric orthopaedic surgeon she sees in her own clinic a “frightening” increase in Type 2 diabetes among adolescents, the result of poor diet, little exercise and excess calories. “We will have a generation of children that is projected to not live as long as their parents,” she told Maclean’s. She expects the government to eventually act on some of her obesity recommendations but so far she’s heard nothing.
Lobbying against a calorie law is the well-connected Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association (CRFA), which purports to know better. Singling out calories “doesn’t meet the needs of our customers,” says Ron Reaman, a vice-president with the CRFA. “Our customers have a wide array of dietary concerns.” Limiting the menu information to calories wouldn’t help those worried about things like carbohydrates, sodium or trans fat, he says: “Never mind allergies.” You can’t put all that on the menu, the thinking goes, so none of it belongs.
Instead, the association has a voluntary “nutrition information program.” Some 33 participating restaurant chains provide an array of nutritional information in varying formats and degrees of visibility. Most have extensive information on company websites; others have brochures or, in the case of McDonald’s, descriptions in exhaustive detail on the back of tray liners. “We believe that this is a responsible approach that responds to the needs of our customers,” says Reaman. “We think it is actually a better approach than what they’re doing in the U.S.”
“Ron’s full of it, but that’s his job,” says Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, founder of Ottawa’s Bariatric Medical Institute, which specializes in non-surgical weight management. “It’s a ridiculous assertion to suggest that people are looking for [all] that information,” says Freedhoff, also the author of the lively obesity website weightymatters.ca. “When we go shopping for things we look at price tags before we buy them so we can determine whether they’re worth it to us,” he says. “When we eat things, the currency of our weight is calories.” Certainly estimating calories isn’t always intuitive.
Even without checking Kelsey’s restaurant website you might guess their fully loaded nachos (at 2,160 calories that’s a day’s worth of eating) had best be shared. But would you think a chicken quesadilla and accompanying rice top out at 1,130 calories? Or that, at Casey’s Bar & Grill, a vegetarian pad Thai is 740 calories, a side of sweet potato fries is 760, but an order of one-piece fish and regular chips is just 330 calories?
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