Tom Patterson

Food for thought: Leave menus alone

Posted on February 19, 2007 | Type: In the News | Author: Tom Patterson
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How many times in a restaurant have you pondered your menu choices, wondering whether the bacon cheeseburger or the garden salad would be more heart healthy? Can't decide? Help from the government may be on the way.?

State Sen. Amanda Aguirre, D-Yuma, thinks that its state governments job to help us make better eating choices. She has introduced SB1436 which would require menus at chain restaurants to list levels of calories, trans fats and sodium for all items.

The senators thinking is that Americans are in a crisis of healthcare with burgeoning rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Diet affects health, according to the senator (who knew?). So, for our own good, government needs to mandate that restaurants supply info on what's bad for us.

Of course, Aguirre isnt proposing an outright prohibition on eating unhealthful food, like the ban on trans fats in New York City. No, if you want a hamburger, you will still be able to get a hamburger, she says, for which we should probably be grateful. But you need to be made more conscious about what you eat and restaurants might take the hint and offer more nutritious choices to balance the bad boys on their menu.

But why are the benefits of SB1436 extended only to diners at chain restaurants? Are calories and fat less harmful if they come from Mrs. Whites fine soul food restaurant or Mary Elaine's at the Phoenician rather than Burger King or Red Lobster? The restriction makes political sense because it greatly reduces the organized opposition to the bill. But if mandatory listing of menu ingredients is a serious response to a national health crisis, shouldn't all restaurateurs be equally responsible for participating? Or is this the way the camel gets his nose just a little way into the tent?

Aguirre and the government regulators better hustle if they want to lead the parade for more healthful eating. Many restaurants are already providing nutrition information on their menus, in response to customers interests, not government mandates. Many more provide the information on request and the restaurant chains typically have it on their Web sites. Moreover, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonalds, Taco Bell and Starbucks are among those who have voluntarily eliminated trans fats from their food choices. Responding to this new market demand, Dow AgroSciences has developed new trans-fat-free oils that have novel fatty acid profiles and deliver the needed taste but not require hydrogenation. Aren't markets great?

Ironically, the growing concern over the role of trans fats may not be backed up by solid science. Elizabeth Whelan, the president of the American Council on Science and Health, is among the scientists who contend that trans fats are actually no more dangerous than any other calories from fat. The fact that restaurants (in New York) cant use a safe, wholesome product to prepare their food is staggering, she asserts.

Whelan sensibly recommends focusing instead on controllable causes of heart disease. Diabetes, high serum cholesterol level and bad lipid levels, smoking and high blood pressure are known contributors to heart disease that deserve attention. If the jury is still out on trans fats, thats all the more reason for government to not get involved. Individuals are free to follow whatever health fads strike their fancy. But when public policy is involved, there should be incontrovertible evidence that the substance is harmful.

Its true that Americans are becoming more obese. But its not because of lack of government help with our food choices. Americans of an earlier era spent more time at manual labor and less time watching TV. Kids played among themselves after school and video games were unknown. The answer to the obesity problem is better lifestyle choices, moderation in diet and more exercise, not more government supervision.

In the meantime, many of us are just fed up with government telling us what we already know and hectoring us for our own good. Listing menu information isn't that big of a deal. But the more government does for us that we could do for ourselves, the less independent and free we become.

Trust us, senator, we can handle this on our own.

East Valley resident Tom Patterson ( is a retired emergency room physician and former state senator.

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