HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Guest Blogger Assistant Professor Jessica L. Roberts - Turkey for Me, Turkey for You: The FDA Kicks Off the Holiday Season by Finalizing Two Anti-Obesity Rules

RobertsLast Thursday was Thanksgiving, the gateway meal to the notoriously high-fat, high-sugar, high-calorie American holiday season. One recent estimate speculates that Americans consume approximately 4500 calories during Thanksgiving dinner, with about 45% of those calories coming from fat. While traditional wisdom holds that most Americans gain between seven and ten pound over the holidays, several studies have indicated that on average we gain only one pound. However, that happy news comes with a few qualifiers: one, overweight people gain about five pounds over the holidays (instead of the average one) and two, once we gain that extra pound, we never lose it, leading to gradual weight gain over the course our lifetimes. Thus, maintaining a healthy weight is more of a marathon than a sprint. Although countless websites are replete with tips for avoiding holiday bloat, the real battle happens long after the menorahs and wreaths go back into the closet.

Perhaps then, it is no surprise that the FDA finalized its menu labeling rules on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. The rules, mandated by the Affordable Care Act, are cast as public health initiatives. The reasoning is as follows: Americans are unaware of the caloric content of the foods they consume away from home; thus, if food retailers provide them with that information they will make healthier choices. The first of the two rules requires restaurants that are part of a chain of twenty or more establishments to conspicuously display the calories of their menu items and to make additional nutritional information available to consumers on request. The second rule mandates that owners or operators of twenty or more vending machines likewise disclose the calorie content of the food they sell.

Whether these measures will actually change Americans’ relationship with the food they eat remains to be seen. Cass Sunstein rather cheerfully reports that the new rules “will change how we eat”. Yet it is also possible that the labeling could have no effect or even backfire. But no matter your level of optimism on the topic, most everyone agrees that menu labeling alone will not be enough to curb American obesity. Thus, our holiday indulgences aside, we must continue to think meaningfully about how to promote healthy eating in the United States. My recommended reading on this topic is Lindsay Wiley’s thoughtful piece from last year “Shame, Blame, and the Emerging Law of Obesity Control”.

Happy holidays, everyone, and eat responsibly! 

-Assistant Professor Jessica L. Roberts

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