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Rules requiring more calorie labels may help people make better choices

The Food and Drug Administration announcement of sweeping rules requiring chain restaurants, movie theaters and pizza parlors across the nation to post calorie counts on their menus may provide the push Americans need to trim their waistlines.

Anything that helps us think twice before we supersize those fries, or buy that extra-large sugary soft drink or go for the tub of “butter” popcorn. Or choose that creamy sauce-smothered pasta or a pizza with extra cheese and double pepperoni.

The list goes on, and so does the list of adverse health effects from unhealthy diets as Americans grow increasingly accustomed to a drive-through dining existence. There is a price to pay, in the form of Type 2 diabetes, heart problems, strokes and other obesity-related medical conditions. It may be too late for some people, but the FDA pushed ahead on new rules. Health experts believe that ever-larger portion sizes and unhealthy ingredients have been significant contributors to the country’s obesity rate.

“More than one-third (34.9 percent or 78.6 million) of U.S. adults are obese,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. “The estimated annual medical cost of obesity in the U.S. was $147 billion in 2008 U.S. dollars; the medical costs for people who are obese were $1,429 higher than those of normal weight.”

The rules don’t prevent the sale of even the unhealthiest food; they just make diners aware of what they are eating.

Much of that unhealthy diet comes from outside the home, unsurprising given our fast-paced, immediate-gratification culture.

While personal responsibility plays a huge role, there are times when convenience trumps a balanced diet and it is easier to reach for the takeout menu or pack the kids in the car for a trip to the nearest chain buffet restaurant.

The rules are tough, and even consumer advocates were caught off guard by their broad reach. The rules cover food in vending machines and amusement parks and certain prepared foods in supermarkets. The rules apply to food establishments with 20 or more outlets, including fast-food chains such as KFC and Subway and sit-down restaurants such as Applebee’s and the Cheesecake Factory.

And the rules cover some alcoholic beverages, which will no doubt prove sobering, although only drinks that appear on menus and menu boards will be subject to the rule.

There is little question that the new regulations, which take effect a year from now, will face steep legal and political hurdles. Grocery and convenience stores that sell prepared foods for takeout are among the strongest opponents. Pizza and movie theater chains also strenuously objected, despite the fact that menu labeling was required in 2010 as part of the Affordable Care Act.

The rules do impose some burden on businesses, but childhood and adult obesity is a national crisis. The FDA’s rules are an appropriate response to that concern.