TALLAHASSEE — A meal from your favorite eatery may soon come with a side of calories.
Some Florida lawmakers want restaurants to put basic nutritional information on menus in a measure aimed at promoting healthier eating.
The effort puts Florida at the center of a burgeoning national debate over how to halt growing obesity rates.
"We are not trying to dictate what people order, we just think there is information out there that people want to know," said Rep. Ed Homan, R-Tampa, an orthopedic surgeon who chairs the Health and Family Services Policy Council.
It's unclear how far the idea will go. The state's powerful restaurant lobby is fighting to kill the legislation (HB783/SB2212), which is scheduled to be heard in the House's Insurance, Business & Financial Affairs Policy Committee soon.
"Restaurants are hurting," said Carol Dover, president of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. "This is not the time for everyone to print new menus."
The group supports a national requirement instead of local standards. At least 20 states and localities, including New Jersey, New York City, California and Pennsylvania, have passed or are considering similar measures with varying requirements.
"You have large chains that operate in 50 different states that could have 50 different menus," Dover said.
Homan acknowledged the association's "huge" influence.
"I don't have a lobby lobbying for this bill," he said. "The restaurant association contributes to campaigns."
Sen. Steve Wise, R-Jacksonville, said the public can't afford to wait for a national standard.
"We would like to get a jump on the obesity epidemic right now," he said.
Florida's overweight rate was 25 percent in 2008, up from 18 percent a decade ago, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The legislation would give restaurants with more than 20 locations a year to print new menus. All other restaurants would have two years to comply. Restaurants would face no penalty if the calorie counts aren't accurate.
Nutritionists and health advocates say the measure could inspire healthier eating.
"Our vested interest is the health of consumers and giving consumers choice," said Nikole Souder-Schale, vice president of advocacy for the American Heart Association in Tallahassee, which has been lobbying for the law. "If it so happens that someone chooses fries every time, that's their choice."
Linda Bobroff, a University of Florida nutritionist, said consumers often underestimate how many calories they gobble down at restaurants.
"You see that all the time," she said. "People go to salad bars and they are loading up on potato salad and creamy this and creamy that and spoonfuls of ranch. Well, you might as well have a hamburger."
One hope is that restaurants will move toward healthier options as consumers become more educated.
Alan Lucas, owner of Moon Under Water in St. Petersburg, recently installed a computer database at his restaurant that allows customers to look up nutritional information. He plans to travel to Tallahassee to lobby for menu labeling.
"People think, 'Oh, we are going to give nutritional facts, we are going to scare customers away,' " Lucas said. "It doesn't happen."
Greater food awareness doesn't always trigger healthier eating.
Many chains already voluntarily list nutritional information on their Web sites or inside their restaurants. Florida's legislation would make posting that information mandatory by threat of a fine.
Medical experts have produced conflicting reports on eating habits at restaurants that list calories.
Some studies show low-income people still choose french fries over carrot sticks, while wealthier people, who tend to eat healthier anyway, might pick less fatty meals when informed. Other reports indicate everyone consumes fewer calories when they know more about what they are eating.
The food awareness movement is simply too young to produce any definitive conclusions, said Brian Elbel, an assistant professor at the New York University School of Medicine and the lead author of a study on New York City's pioneering law on posting calories.
"It's not clear at this point the extent as to whether this will help with obesity," Elbel said.
The restaurant association, however, says it already has an answer: Pasta plates, thick steaks and chocolate desserts will always be popular with people who want to indulge.
"Groceries have had nutrition labeling as long as I can remember, and it has not stopped people from buying fries and ice cream and doughnuts at the supermarket," Dover said. "It's about personal responsibility. People need to go to the gym."
She added, "If we really thought it would make a difference, we would be the first ones to embrace it."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or [email protected]