For some Maine restaurants, this was the last New Year’s Eve patrons could chow down blissfully unaware of how many calories they eat.

Coming in 2011: A new law mandates that restaurant chains with 20 or more outlets post calories on menus as plain as the price. That will let consumers know if that six-piece chicken strip basket has 1,200 calories, or if that big burger is 990 calories, when health experts say the total calories consumed in an entire day should be about 2,000 for a typical adult.

The change will impact about 600 Maine restaurants, about 20 percent, according to the Maine Restaurant Association.

While it may take months for the calorie listings to appear on Maine menus, the change can’t come soon enough for Dr. Dora Mills, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Calories on menus is one way to combat the growing health problem of obesity, Mills said. “Studies show that when calorie information is given at the point of purchase, people are more likely to use that information to make healthy choices.”

Like much of the nation, nearly two-thirds of Mainers (64 percent) are overweight or obese, according to 2009 statistics.

“Obesity rates in Maine have more than doubled since 1990,” Mills said, calling the increase troubling. The percentage of obese Mainers was 26.4 percent in 2009, up from 12.2 percent in 1990. The percentage of overweight Mainers was 37.8 percent in 2009, up from 32.6 percent in 1990.

That contributes to shorter lifespans, lengthy lists of health problems and reduced qualities of life. Eating out is a way of life for many; almost half of the food dollars in the United States, or 48 percent, are spent eating out, according to Healthy Androscoggin.

The head of the Maine Restaurant Association said changing menus to include calories will be costly for restaurants. “We’ve accepted that,” President Richard Grotton said.

Some customers want that information, some don’t. “How far can this go?” Grotton asked. “If this doesn’t sufficiently modify behavior, will we get to the point you have to step on the scales at a restaurant before you can you go in?”

Then again, Grotton said there’s interest among restaurants in nutrition. “It’s good to be focused on what restaurants are serving. It’s good for customers to be aware of healthy lifestyles. It is the consumer’s decision to eat as they choose.”

One result from posting calories could be “we stop equating large portions with value,” he said. Value should be the experience and satisfaction, not a plate filled edge to edge.

Local restaurant owners offered mixed reactions.

“They’re trying to micromanage everybody’s business,” Jimmy Simones of Simones’ Hot Dog Stand in Lewiston said. “They’re taking things a step too far and telling you what to do.”

The law won’t impact his restaurant because it’s not part of a chain. But eventually it could be a requirement for all, Simones said. It could be tough figuring out the calories “if you have five different soups during the day.”

The law will be good for some who need to watch their caloric intake, Simones said. “Today we have healthy beef barley soup with 8 grams of fiber.” Other menu items include more soups, salads, whole grains, grilled chicken and oatmeal and fruit for breakfast.

Dave Grendell, who co-owns 10 area Subways in Lewiston-Auburn and surrounding towns, will be affected by the law. He seems to welcome the change.

Calories on menus is the future, Grendell said. The Subway chain will soon unveil new menus and panels that will display calories as prominently as the price.

Subway has long been a leader in offering healthier fast food, Grendell said. “This may help us.”

Steven Johndro, executive director of Healthy Androscoggin, said New York’s experience illustrates the law is needed.

In 2008 New York City was the first to mandate chain restaurants post calories. A 2009 survey showed 89 percent of New Yorkers polled liked having the  information and were surprised by the calories. “It was higher than they expected,” Johndro said.

Central Maine Medical Center bariatric surgeon Jamie Loggins said the change is long overdue and will help consumers.

“People don’t realize the hidden calorie content of food they eat. Just because a meal can be eaten fast doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a lot of calories,” Loggins said. “People will be surprised to see what they’re eating,” including some drinks that contain as many calories as a nutritious meal.

National statistics show when a person is overweight, that individual’s health care costs are $1,429 more a year, according to Healthy Androscoggin. In 2008, medical costs for people who had health problems because of their weight cost $147 billion nationally, Johndro said.

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Why Maine law won’t start Feb. 1

A Maine law requiring calories on menus was to take affect Feb. 1, 2011. But that law won’t be enforced until similar federal regulations are available, said Dr. Dora Mills, head of the Maine CDC. President Obama’s health care legislation passed last year also requires chain restaurants to post calories on menus. The language for that requirements has not been written yet.

“We don’t want the Maine law to be different,” Mills said. She said she doesn’t want restaurants to have to change their menus more than once. Experts expect calories to appear on Maine menus by the summer.

Maine lawmakers passed the calorie law in 2009.


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