BY SUSAN LAUGHLIN
NHMagazine.com

Ever feel you would like to go out to eat, but not really feeling in the mood for the caloric- and cholesterol-laden assault on your stomach? Most restaurants get their glory from offering diners rich comfort foods and upscale delights rendered with love, but also a heavy handful of richness from butters, creams and all things fried.

The easy answer, so what, I don't eat out that often or I don't finish the meal or, wait, this is the best one ... I deserve it ... had a rough day and I did work out last week.

For most of us, a fat suit is waiting, ever patiently, for its day of fulfillment.

The obesity trend is out there and the statistics are scary. According to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Service Division of Public Health Services, 60 percent of all adults are overweight or obese. Is this caused by our "Fast Food Nation," lack of activity or lack of knowledge? I would venture a "bite" of all the above.

A proposed new law would require calorie labeling on menus and menu boards in chain restaurants, retail food establishment and vending machines with 20 or more locations. It's your call whether this is communism or consumer rights, but I would think people would want to know what exactly they are putting in their mouths. Many chains already offer this information and it does give you pause before you recite your order. It also makes the chains strive a bit harder to make tasty food with lower numbers. But what about local restaurants? I am sure they have heard the call for lower calories too.

Many restaurants do not fall under the new federal menu-labeling legislation nor does the state require them to offer healthier options, yet an initiative has begun.

Luca's Restaurant in Keene was one of the first to participate in Turn a New Leaf, the first county-wide healthy dining initiative starting in New Hampshire. Cheshire County HEAL (Healthy Eating, Active Living) developed the program in late 2011 with four participating restaurants. Now five more have joined and Nashua HEAL is in the early stages of implementation along with Upper Valley HEAL, which partnered with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in their program called Easy Choices in the Lebanon area. Hospitals are a natural fit, but the program is spreading.

In August, The Common Man in Ashland began offering a separate healthy menu complete with children's options that are not fried. Several other Ashland restaurants are participating too. It's all just a start for now. HEAL is active is pairing restaurant owners and chefs who are interested with local dietitians for ideas on lowering caloric content and figuring out exactly what the count is.

Director of HEAL Terry Johnson says, "We want it to be easier to eat healthy and have it done in a way that fits in our routine. More people are demanding the nutrition information and it can't be done without labeling. It can be as simple as a heart or leaf image on the menu signifying lower calories and or less fat."

Johnson says even salads can be sneaky. Although they are a traditional dieter's choice, candied nuts, candied fruits and rich dressings can make them tip the scale. He wants to empower the consumer. If you know the caloric numbers, you might decide to just use portion control and have half the meal put in a to-go box before you start eating. If you think the government should stay out of lifestyle choices, Johnson says, "Even registered dietitians don't always pick the healthiest choice because of hidden calories. It is just difficult to choose without labeling. It's a real challenge."

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