Legislation is rolling out across our vast land like a runaway donut, and it's bumping people in its path. If you live in New York or any one of a dozen major U.S. cities (including Philadelphia, Chicago, Seattle), ordinances either have or will soon be passed that require fast food restaurants to post calorie counts next to every item on their menus. So you may soon learn, for example, that a Starbucks blueberry muffin sports 410 calories and a Quiznos Large Tuna Melt has more than 1,350.
In response, there's been fussing both from obvious and less obvious corners. On the one hand, the New York State Restaurant Association fought to strike down the ordinance, emphasizing the undue burden it would place on restaurants. (As it is, only restaurants with more than 15 chains nationwide fall under the ordinance; the rest are exempt.) Others complain that the "nutrition police" have gone way too far this time, and that if they want to down a 530 calorie Peanut Butter Moo'd from Jamba Juice after working out, then, dammit, they should be allowed to.
As I see it, there are pluses and minuses to the issue. On the plus side, transparency is always better than obscurity, whether you're talking warning labels on cigarettes, ratings on movies, or calories in a superburrito. People who want to take the information they're given and apply it to their decision-making matrices can do so, and those who choose to ignore it can do that, too.
But it's a little more complicated. Calories are but one measure of a food's health profile, and by listing calories to the exclusion of, say, fat grams, or calcium content, or even sodium, you're holding calories up as the end-all, be-all measure of a food's worth. A diet soda has fewer calories than a cup of skim milk, but that doesn't make it the healthier choice.
Now I'm certainly not suggesting that we crowd menus with copious amounts of nutritional information. That would be ludicrous, not to mention impractical. But it is important to realize that the calorie isn't king. It's but one player in a complex dietary chess game.