Obesity, heart disease, and diabetes are all health problems on the rise.

They are also conditions that can be minimized and controlled through proper nutrition.

With today’s fast-paced lives, taking the time to determine the nutritional breakdown for everything we eat is easier said than done.

And nowhere is this more difficult that when we are eating out, as Americans do more and more each year.

Here in California we saw a step forward with the passage last year of state Sen. Alex Padilla’s SB 1420 — requiring nutritional labeling of menu items in chain restaurants.

Now, with the introduction of the federal LEAN (Labeling Education and Nutrition) Act, we have a chance to achieve a uniform national standard, so consumers in all states and communities can benefit.

The LEAN Act would provide consumers dining out at chain restaurants with 20 or more outlets with the kind of nutritional labeling information they need in order to understand the choices they are making and then use that information in ways that are best for their unique health needs.

H.R. 1398 is based on the highly successful federal Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA), sponsored by our own Congressman Henry Waxman nearly two decades ago, which provided consumers who purchase packaged foods and beverages with comprehensive nutrition information about the food they were buying.

Although this information is now taken for granted, at the time it was a monumental step forward in helping all consumers make healthy choices. The LEAN Act will expand NLEA to include food sold by chain restaurants, giving consumers that same information when they dine out.

But exactly what information consumers are getting is critical.

While current California law requires calorie disclosure on menu boards, having access to only this information out of context can be counterproductive. Just because a jelly donut has fewer calories than a whole wheat bagel does not make it a healthier breakfast option.

Making truly healthy choices requires access to many factors besides calories, including the level of carbohydrates, protein, fiber, sugars, sodium, fat, and cholesterol.

The LEAN Act requires that this full spectrum of nutritional information be made available to anyone who requests it prior to the point of purchase.

Neither national law, nor state and local regulations — even here in California — would give consumers access to more nutritional information when dining out.

There are many reasons to act now on moving forward with a national nutritional labeling standard for restaurants.

In addition to California’s alarmingly high obesity rate of 22.6 percent, a recent public opinion poll conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates confirms that, while consumers accept responsibility for making their own food choices when eating out, they want more nutrition information to help them to do so.

Moreover, establishing a national nutrition standard has never been more pertinent. With all the discussion of healthcare reform, this bill allows all Americans to proactively reduce the risks of many of our nation’s most costly health conditions.

The NLEA has had a profound effect on the choices we make at the grocery store, by providing us with comprehensive nutrition information, and the LEAN Act can do the same in restaurants.

It provides consumers with a complete array of nutritional information, while also taking into account the needs of widely varying restaurants to assess their own situation and the desires of their customers in deciding how best to provide the information.

The LEAN Act provides us with the opportunity to effect a change in the lives of millions of American consumers.

It is more than just a change we can believe in — it is change we can all help implement, for ourselves and for our families.

Marsha K. Cohen is a cognitive nutritionist in Beverly Hills. She can be reached at marsha@marshacohennutrition.com.

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