What Diet? New Yorkers Digest Menu Calorie Counts

This week may mark the end of diet denial for many New Yorkers. On Monday the city's health department began issuing citations to chain restaurants that haven't complied with a new law requiring them to post calorie counts on their menus. Officials are hoping that putting the hard numbers front and center will inspire healthier dining choices and slow a growing epidemic of obesity. Of course, most people already know that a cheeseburger isn't exactly weight-loss food, but prior to the new rule it was a lot easier not to face up to how many calories were in your favorite fast-food lunch. And not everyone is dedicated enough to hunt down the nutrition information on the corporate restaurant Web sites.

Now the calorie numbers are right there next to the price of each item, in the same size type. And some of those numbers are less than appetizing. For example, a large cookie (Triple Chocolate Chunk) at Starbucks can cost you 610 calories—that's more than the 540 calories in a Big Mac. Starbucks began posting calorie counts in their pastry cases weeks before the health department officials hit the streets to issue citations. In some stores the effect on customers was immediate. Many women were literally stepping back from the glass as they read the labels. "Oh man, I never would have guessed it was that much," said Saby Rodriquez of Brooklyn of the cookie calorie counts. "It definitely discourages me from buying." Indeed, the cookie and cheesecake calorie counts made a chocolate croissant look like chaste diet food, at a mere 261 calories. But even with the evidence of diet disaster right there in front of them, some of the men waiting in line didn't even see the calories on the food labels or weren't fazed if they did. "I noticed," said Peter Bless, "but it didn't register. And besides, it's Saturday. Who wants to count calories?" New York's restaurant association certainly hopes most people adopt Bless's attitude but says it plans to continue its challenge to the rule in court.

Meanwhile, gourmet diners may not be facing calorie counts on those pricey menus, but that doesn't mean the numbers are any less scary. A recent New York magazine analysis put a meal at Per Se, one of the best-reviewed restaurants in the city, at 2,416 calories—an entire day's allotment for a healthy adult. Of course, that was a nine-course extravaganza plus two glasses of wine and rolls, not just a fast-food sandwich, frothy coffee drink and pastry, which can land you about the same number of calories if you choose recklessly.

Should New York City's experiment with caloric deterrents help trim Big Apple waistlines, other cities may adopt similar laws. New York is a bit of a pioneer on the health front: it is also the only city to force restaurants to phase out their use of artery-clogging artificial trans fats. Only time, and the bathroom scale, will tell if these measures make citizens healthier or just take the fun out of Fun City.