Sometimes it feels as if all I do is eat and exercise. It isn’t exactly the case, but as a restaurant critic responsible for a weekly review and multiple weekly blog posts about my city’s dining scene, I have to eat out a lot. And because I have no desire to fall on the wrong side of the statistics in our nation’s obesity epidemic, I also think a lot about all the calories I’m consuming while eating out.
Even so, despite my personal plight, I’m conflicted about the current push (both governmental and societal) to have restaurants offer healthier alternatives.
Personally, I would appreciate less-fattening food, and in the fast-casual world it makes a lot of sense to give consumers a choice about what they’re eating. I rarely eat fast food, but when I do (say, while on a long road trip), I gravitate to healthier options and hate it if there are none available. I also know that fast food is an easy and affordable way for many folks to feed their families—and in that regard, it has a responsibility to offer some healthy options.
But what about in full-service restaurants? Especially those that are more likely to be special-occasion destinations?
I eat in these places four or five times a week, but most people aren’t indulging in fine dining that often. If you’re out for your one special meal of the week, or month, or year, are you really thinking about healthy choices?
Next year, new rules will require any restaurant with more than 20 units to post calorie counts on menus. And yet, studies have shown that those calorie counts do very little to change the way customers order. This is partly just common sense—few people walk into a burger shack looking for health food. And I’m about as likely to order from the “healthy choices” section of a full-service restaurant’s menu as I am to order from the kid’s menu. Dining out is supposed to be about being pampered and indulging, not about being virtuous.
Yet, I appreciate it when I leave a restaurant feeling well-fed but not overstuffed. And despite the research stating that consumers basically don’t care about calorie counts, the pressure is only going to increase for restaurants to provide healthy menu options.
I don’t want to get all conspiracy theory here, but it’s unlikely the calorie-counts law will be the end of regulation and legislation regarding restaurant food and health.