Wising up to bad food

02:17, Jun 24 2013

I struggle with what I'm pretty sure is a common affliction.

See, I have impulses toward certain unhealthy food groups (chocolate, junk food, candy, etc) that I find hard to eliminate from my life. These desires for culinary misbehaviour are compounded in particularly vulnerable life situations (hangovers, work stress, whenever there's something good to watch on TV, etc).

It's not that I consider myself to be unhealthy; it is simply that I confound myself with a capacity to subtly undermine habits of self-discipline (I run 5 kilometres most days) with sporadic losses of self-control (on Sunday I slept until noon, had fried chicken and waffles for brunch and then watched five episodes of Gossip Girl).

Luckily for me a new rule is being implemented across America at the moment, as a result of the Obama Administration's Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). It is the most ingenious incentive to eat well I've ever encountered.

For the first time, I feel as though a government has pragmatically and cleverly acted in a way that directly protects me from my lesser nature.

Let's go back in time.


It is a couple of weeks ago and I'm at the movies. As always happens, the general buttery smell of the movie theatre prompts a Pavlovian response in me, and I get in line dutifully at the candy bar. I look up at the board, and begin considering just how much I'm willing to overpay the AMC Entertainment, Inc, (which operates more than 5000 multiplexes in America) for popcorn that costs them next to nothing.

My eyes meet a rude shock.

Under the Affordable Care Act, the AMC candy bar is a chain, as it has more than 20 outlets in operation, and it also falls into the category of "restaurants and similar retail food establishments".

So now to comply with new rules, AMC must display calorie counts on its menu boards for all available options. As I stand in line at the candy bar, anticipating my dose of buttery popcorn, I must now first make peace with the caloric reality of my planned purchase.

A large serving of popcorn, I am shocked to find out, has north of 1000 calories. Even after reminding myself that movies just aren't the same if I'm not slowly making myself sick from overeating popcorn, I can't do it. It's about half of what I should be eating for an entire day. Later research informs me that a large serving of popcorn is actually worse for you than eating an entire pizza on your own.

Studies have come down both for and against this new requirement. A Yale study concluded that people who saw calorie counts before ordering reduced their overall consumption by 14 per cent from those who did not. Some researchers, however, encountered a baffling lack of rationality in how some consumers made decisions against their own self-interest.

I can only speak for myself. But I love this rule. It gives hard data to vague notions that I have managed in my life so far to bury underneath a need for horrible food, but still leaves me to decide for myself.

If I purchase a Snickers bar, I will eat the chocolate and dispose of the wrapper before I've even had a chance to sneak a peek at the nutritional information to shame myself. But if the calories are listed in a green box on the front, I don't have that luxury.

I know that in New Zealand's McDonald's restaurants you can find the nutritional information on packaging and the back of tray mats, but it's not the same as being unable to avoid confronting it.

I guess you could shut your eyes, run in, yell out your order, and leave. But that's too much work for a bad burger.     

It's allowed me to make cutbacks in my own way, and find a style of indulgence that won't lead me down into the shame spiral.

I know now because of these rules that a Double-Double with Onions at In-N-Out, a luxury I find hard to refuse if I'm passing by, is going to set me back almost 700 calories. Which isn't a catastrophe, but that starts to look a little less pretty if I want fries with that, and a little bit more like a heart attack if I'm feeling flamboyant and want a milkshake. The same with McDonald's. If I stop with just a cheeseburger or maybe a McChicken, but avoid the fries, it's not good, but it could be worse.

Maybe you think differently, and see it as a case of a government again stepping over the mark and interfering with our habits and decisions. We're a bit touchy about the nanny state, if I remember correctly.

So would you be in favour of a similar measure being implemented across New Zealand?

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