In Praise of Calorie-Counting

Here's a story I like to tell. I used to eat Cosi salads for lunch about three days a week. Then I read that a serving of Cosi's salad dressing has about 360 calories. As somebody who likes his salads well-dressed and his pants well-fitting, I was taken aback, and snooped around a bit for other foods I eat regularly that have about 400 calories -- like two big scoops of chocolate ice cream. Today I warn fellow Cosi-addicts that it makes nutritional sense to order this way: "I'm actually on a diet. Could you hold the dressing and just put two big scoops of chocolate ice cream on top of the lettuce, instead? Thanks." Why am I telling this story? Because Sens. Tom Harkin and Rosa DeLauro are re-introducing a menu-labeling law with calorie-counts, and that is awesome.


As Ezra Klein writes, we're very good at under-estimating the number of calories in our meals and we're paying the price. He cites a Health Impact Assessment (pdf) that concludes that if 20% of all large-chain patrons cut their meals by 75 calories, we could slash 58% of the "6.75 million pound average annual weight gain in the county population aged 5 years and older."

The argument against menu-labeling goes something like this. Calorie-counting is expensive, it stifles kitchen-innovation because chefs feel enslaved by menu that went to the lab, it hurts local growers because their produce has more caloric diversity, and it won't make much of a difference anyway.

I don't agree. I have trouble believing that this law will impose an undue burden on restaurants in, say, Washington, DC, if they've already printed all the nutrition facts in New York City. These are large-scale chains, after all. Why can't other Americans have access to the nutrition numbers that New Yorkers are now accustomed to?

And if there's any innovation in the kitchen, I hope it's in the direction of less lardy. I like a deep-fried Bloomin' Onion as much as the next guy. But I also like my heart, and if I'm going to deep-fry my arteries, I would at least like the privilege of looking my enemy right between the numbers.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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