You Can Show a Fat Bastard Calories, but You Can't Make Him Count

In July 2008, New York City began requiring chain restaurants to list calorie counts on their menu boards. The first study of this mandate's impact, published online yesterday by the journal Health Affairs, suggests that, contrary to the highly optimistic projections of its promoters, it has not led New Yorkers to consume fewer calories. In fact, the researchers found that the average calorie count for meals at fast food restaurants (McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, and KFC) rose by 2.5 percent in New York after the mandate took effect while remaining essentially unchanged in Newark, the comparison city.

Using a combination of interviews and data taken from diners' receipts, the researchers were able to measure the correspondence between what people said and what they did, which was less than perfect. The share of New York diners who said they noticed calorie counts rose dramatically after the menu mandate kicked in, from less than 20 percent to 54 percent (much bigger than the increase in calorie awareness observed in Newark). But less than a quarter of those who reported seeing calorie information said it led them to consume fewer calories. While this subgroup (13.5 percent of all subjects) ate less, on average, than the overall sample, they ate more than the diners who said they did not notice calorie counts. "Even those who indicated that the calorie information influenced their food choices," the researchers write, "did not actually purchase fewer calories."

This study covered four weeks, two before the calorie counts appeared and two afterward. Maybe the newly conspicuous information needed more time to have an impact, though it's hardly encouraging that even the people who claimed to have changed their behavior in response to the calorie counts did not actually eat less. It's also possible, as the authors suggest, that research focusing on affluent white people, as opposed to the poor blacks and Hispanics sampled in this study, might find evidence of an effect. Another limitation of the study is that it did not consider people who may have been driven away from fast food chains by the calorie counts. But it's not clear that such customers ended up eating less elsewhere; they may simply have sought restaurants where they would not be reminded of how many calories they were consuming. 

In any case, it seems clear that menu mandate boosters have exaggerated this policy's power to make people thinner. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene predicted the menu regulations would stop 150,000 people from becoming obese and prevent 30,000 cases of diabetes over five years. The California Center for Public Health Advocacy claimed menu labeling would result in a weight loss of nearly three pounds a year per fast food consumer. Such results are hard to achieve if people do not actually eat less.

The main problem is that information accomplishes nothing unless people are motivated to use it. Since fast food chains were already providing calorie counts on their websites and on posters, tray mats, and flyers in their restaurants, weight-conscious customers had this information even before New York decreed that it appear on menu boards as well. The impact of making it more conspicuous therefore would be limited to the customers who are least inclined to use it.

I criticized New York's menu mandate when it took effect.

[via Ryan Sager]

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • anarch||

    They enter a fast-food joint bearing vague misgivings/guilt about eating at a place that's reputedly indifferent to the healthiness of the fare. Then they glance at the calorie-count, which instills confidence that, after all, management is paying attention to the healthiness of the fare. And so they purchase and consume more, complacent that their welfare is being looked after.

    Bet that's it.

  • Rich||

    But less than a quarter of those who reported seeing calorie information said it led them to consume fewer calories.

    Cynical Rich notes that "seeing" is not the same as "reading and comprehending".

  • ||

    One of the primary problems with people is that, deep down, they don't understand that many people are deeply, profoundly stupid and shortsighted. So they try cutesy stuff like this, which will obviously never work.

    When it fails, the people split into two groups; those who won't let it go and wants to make people behave well, and those who are content to let people do what they want, and to let them live with the consequences.

  • BakedPenguin||

    This reminds me of when Supersize Me came out. Eat fatty foods, every day, at a fast food restaurant, and you'll become a fatass? Wow! What a revelation! Next thing you know, they'll be telling you that 24/7 cake diet is a bad idea.

  • ||

    Hey now, what if we put healthy stuff in the cakes? Like carrot...and um...ok nevermind, lets not mess with cake.

  • ||

    Looking for the unavoidable bias, I read the entire article. The last four paragraphs of the study are the most revealing. To wit, the authors state that calorie labeling is (probably) ineffective and then -- more than twice in four paragraphs -- suggest that MORE or BETTER policies to combat obesity may be required.

    In short, any busybody politician could wave this paper over his head during a budget or policy-proposal meeting and clamor for more intervention, even though the first intervention yielded negligible results.

    Jacob, I love everything you stand for, but I'd expect you to see the double edge on this study's sword.

  • ||

    Once the government controls health care, I'm sure they'll find some way to "motivate" people to use the information.

  • ||

    Anybody else read Johnny's handle as "Johnny Cake"?

    Damn I'm Hungry.

  • Sizzlechest||

    I love you Johnny Cakes!

  • Chad||

    I wouldn't expect much of a result in fast food restaurants, because anyone who cares doesn't eat there often, and the information was already available anyway. Heck, I knew a Big Mac had about 550 calories when I was a little kid, over 25 years ago.

    However, when looking at "casual" sit-down places like Outback or Chilis, or calorie-hogs in disguise like Starbucks or Panera Bread, these laws have brought forth data that was not easily accessed before...at virtually no cost.

  • Nephilium||

    You must be using a different definition of "Not easily accessed" then me.

    http://www.paneranutrition.com/

    Seems pretty easy to me, especially since the locations have free wi-fi.

  • Chad ||

    A lot of this data didn't exist publically a few years ago. Once they were forced to out it in some places, there is no reason to try to keep the genie in the bottle.

    However, fast food data has been widely distributed for decades.

  • Attorney||

    Jacob, I love everything you stand for, but I'd expect you to see the double edge on this study's sword.

    I don't really see it as a double-edged sword. The study appears to show that the calorie-signage law doesn't accomplish what its supporters expected it to accomplish. The fact that anyone with a statist mind-set will then conclude that even more intervention is needed goes without saying. It doesn't invalidate the study.

  • ||

    Attorney, by this, are you simply suggesting that the findings and the author's conclusions can be separated?

  • Attorney||

    Pretty much. But here, as I understand it (I haven't read the study), the authors do conclude that the law isn't causing people to consume fewer calories. It's their subsequent policy proposals that go off into left field.

  • Steve Chaos||

    It seems like it's a potential case of adverse selection at work. To wit: those who are aware of the calorie counts on average, as a sub-group, tend to consume more than those who don't pay these counts any mind. That is, those who look for calorie counts likely are self-selecting individuals who consume more calories on average (regardless of the counts). To put it to a concrete example - people who are aware of the fact that they overeat but don't necessarily make an effort to change this behavior. Which, when you think about it, everyone knows someone like that. This study seems to point to these people as your major consumers of calorie count information.

    Conversely, those who don't look for such counts may just simply know how to control portions/calories better, and therefore don't really need a calorie count to tell them anything they didn't already know.

    Either way, it's fairly damning to the proposition that calorie counts really "do" anything. But I think further study of the self-selection effect would be interesting, nonetheless.

  • Tim Cavanaugh||

    If the law compels chain restaurants but not other restaurants, isn't the law a bill of attainder and thus illegal under the U.S. Constitution?

  • Bill||

    Doubtful. To be a bill of attainder, it must be punitive - intended to punish - which this law likely is not. Also, what level of scrutiny would it be subject to? Likely rational basis, which means the state would have to show only a rational legislative purpose and a law reasonably tailored to serve that purpose. Another term for "rational basis review" is "the state wins."

  • Attorney||

    OT -- is there someone with a law degree among the Reason writers? (No snark. Just wondering.)

  • Bill||

    I could see someone looking at the calorie info and thinking, "Oh, a Big Mac is only 750 calories? Jeez, I always thought it was more like 900. Well, cool, then I can get the biggie fries and shake and round it out with a hot apple pie."

  • The Pedant||

    You make a good point. But note that McDonald's does not have a "biggie" fries. Only Wendy's uses such stupid, baby-talk terminology.

  • Shannon Love||

    To this we might add the recent study that showed that having healthy items like salads on a menu made people more likely to order less healthy items. Therefore, the pressure to include "healthy" items actually increased the number of calories people consumed.

    This is the problem with attempting to engineer people's behavior. We don't have a true scientific model of how people make decisions. Psychology is chocked full of examples of counterintuitive behavior yet we keep making policy based on the idea that people will respond in a simplistic manner as predicted by the off-the-cuff assertion of a lawyer or politicians.

    We've been trying to socially engineer away evils for nearly a century now and in the main we've failed. We don't really know how to change behavior and even if we did, we shouldn't invest that kind of power in the state.

  • ||

    "yet we keep making policy based on the idea that people will respond in a simplistic manner as predicted by the off-the-cuff assertion of a lawyer or politicians."

    Welcome to the "Chess Pieces Fallacy".

  • Cass Sunstein||

    We don't really know how to change behavior and even if we did, we shouldn't invest that kind of power in the state.

    Oops. You're too late.

  • Some Guy||

    I'm all for making it so it has to be available on request, but some of us would prefer not to know how many calories are in a Five Guys bacon cheeseburger.

  • EJM||

  • Paul||

    The Nazi's starved the Jews with 920 calories...

  • jtuf||

    That is off the topic. The shock value does not contribute to the conversation.

  • WWJGD||

    You must be new to the internet.

  • ||

    you mean the Nazis

  • Some Guy||

    LA LA LA! I CAN'T HEAR YOU!

  • Slutmonkey||

    Godwin's Law wins again.

  • Morris||

    Amazing! Yet more evidence that nothing government does is ever any good. Thank God Jacob Sullum doesn't have a real job.

  • ||

    The labeling might actually encourage some to buy the higher calorie items. If someone is really hungry (or inclined to overeating) and looking to stuff their face, they might be inclined to seek out the larger and/or more filling items.

  • Mo||

    "But it's not clear that such customers ended up eating less elsewhere; they may simply have sought restaurants where they would not be reminded of how many calories they were consuming."

    Do people like that exist? Ow my eyes, calorie numbers!!! Do these people black out the nutritional info on the food they buy from the supermarket too?

  • zoltan||

    No, their shameful tears blur the nutritional content while they stuff their faces.

  • PoBoy||

    Calorie counts help you maximize value by getting the highest calorie bang for your limited food buck.

  • I, Kahn O'Clast||

    The study also ignores:

    1) that for many people a calorie count is meaningless. If they don't know that 2,000 (or whatever) is a day's allowance, then a 750 score on a burger is meaningless

    2) that many people cannot perform the math required.

    3) that some people are illiterate and are not ordering from the menu

    4) that some people have the menu memorized and thus don't look at it

    5) that some people cannot see well enough to make out the menu. (How many people - esp women - have I seen squint at high menus trying to figure them out?)

    6) that some people -- construction workers for example -- are looking for the most calories possible and who might be led to the higher numbers rather than the lower (Homeless people might also be in this category -- or maybe certain stoned individuals)

    7) that some small frugal bunch might also be looking for the most calorie for the dollar.

    8) that many many people are not watching their weight.

  • Xeones||

    However, when looking at "casual" sit-down places like Outback or Chilis, or calorie-hogs in disguise like Starbucks or Panera Bread, these laws have brought forth data that was not easily accessed before...at virtually no cost.

    Ooh, someebody used to be fatty mcfat fat before he kicked the frappucino habit, huh?

  • Xeones||

    8) that many many people are not watching their weight.

    That's why Big Brother's gonna step in and watch everybody's weight FOR them. You know, for the children -- and in the eyes of our betters in Washington, we're all children.

  • Big Brother||

    It's true. Next year, remotely-monitored gastric lap-bands will be mandatory for all newborns.

  • ||

    The problem is everyone wants a painless way to lose weight. These mandates for calorie counts and soda taxes and so forth are realy just the hope the psychological trickery will cause people to eat less without thinking about it (which is to say, without putting any effort into it).

    But there is no painless weight loss. It doesn't matter whether you see the calories on the menu or not, you are still going to feel hungrey. Not eating at the restaurant just means you'll snack later. Not drinking a soda (or drinking a diet soda) just means you'll make it up by eating or drinking something else. If you aren't taking in calories, you will feel hungry, no matter how much psychological trickery you try to play on yourself.

  • ||

    "Oh, that burger was SEVEN HUNDRED CALORIES, nevermind then, i guess i'm not still hungry after all"

  • ||

    Next up: having to sign a little paper asserting that you have indeed read the calorie counts for your particular order.

  • ||

    And a record of the customer's driver's licenses too.

  • Sean Healy||

    Nope. They'll put a limit on how many calories you can buy instead, just like the limits they put on cold remedies and other restricted medicines that are basically harmless.

  • ||

    ummm, they need the record of licenses to make sure you're NOT getting more than your allotment.

  • Attorney||

    But there is no painless weight loss. It doesn't matter whether you see the calories on the menu or not, you are still going to feel hungrey.

    Ten years max, we'll have an effective appetite-suppressing pill. You can take that to the bank, baby.

  • ||

    Is this a case of the "the magic bullet" in fact being a real one? Administered cranial parentally with explosive force?

    Desperate times and all

    And Morris, die. Dessicate. Go back to the earth from whence you came zombie.

  • Paul||

    The Nazi's had an appetite suppression method...

  • jtuf||

    Give it a break Paul.

  • dfd||

  • Pepe||

    Hunger isn't the only reason people eat, people with serious weight problems usually eat even when they aren't hungry.

    Also, things with lots of calories don't necessarily make you feel fuller than things with few calories. A full stomach will tend to quell your hunger whether you fill it with 4000 calories of fat and sugar or 400 calories of protein and vegetables.

  • bobzmoose||

    Who the $%*# cares?! Let them eat cake... and a #4 combo meal with a large Coke.

  • ||

    But there is no painless weight loss. It doesn't matter whether you see the calories on the menu or not, you are still going to feel hungrey. Not eating at the restaurant just means you'll snack later. Not drinking a soda (or drinking a diet soda) just means you'll make it up by eating or drinking something else. If you aren't taking in calories, you will feel hungry, no matter how much psychological trickery you try to play on yourself.

    Well, there is always amphetamines.

  • dfd||

    Ah and I see we've had the same response as mine above for over three hours as well... :)

  • SIV||

    What happened to Cavanaugh's incoherent post about the Orange County California real estate market?

  • SIV||

    It's back up

  • hotsauce||

    When they started putting nutritional info on the food, I remember being surprised at how few calories were in a medium fries at McDonalds. That plus a quarter pounder and diet coke isn't that bad of a meal. You can -- and probably do -- do much worse at Applebees, Fridays or other slice of Americana eatery.

  • Andrea||

    Why don't they just chain the front doors so people can't come in and eat? That would work.

  • jtuf||

    Mental Hygiene

    AKA Brain Washing

  • jtuf||

    I've said it before,and I'll say it again. All these government programs to reduce obesity are pointless. Amateur porn websites are much more effective at keeping people healthy. After several of my viewers commented about how much they like bears, I went on a diet and joined a gym.

  • ||

    Isn't the bigger issue, the important issue not whether or not some stupid government, nanny state initiative to influence people to make "healthy choices" is effective or not, but rather why the hell is the government involved in our "lifestyle" choices at all? Oh, I forgot. It takes a village.

  • ||

    When it fails, the people split into two groups; those who won't let it go and wants to make people behave well, and those who are content to let people do what they want, and to let them live with the consequences.

    Toxic, I would guesstimate that the split between these groups is about 80/20 nationwide. 100/0 in legislatures.

    Obviously, the next step is to cap the number of calories that any person can obtain through a restaurant. That, in turn, will require a nationwide database (and corresponding bureaucracy) to prevent anyone from doubling up their lunch order at different restaurants.

  • ||

    This study covered four weeks, two before the calorie counts appeared and two afterward.

    It's amusing that the researchers thought that comparing those two fortnights would generate useful data.

    We got a new microwave here at work on September 15th. It has caused people to eat more soups for lunch. How do I know this? I compared the first half of September with the last half of September. Convinced?

  • Archie||

    I think the researchers' confusion over the results can be tacked up to unthinking assumptions about the mindset and behavior of the fast food-buying crowd in Newark and NYC.

    A low-income, overweight person waddling into McDonalds isn't there to work on moderating his diet -- he's there to obtain satisfaction (fullness) at the lowest cost. His goal is to obtain a large number of calories at the lowest possible price. Trying to get this person to spend the same amount of money to obtain less calories is an exercise in futility. If the guy wanted to lose weight, he wouldn't be in McDonalds anyways.

  • Slutmonkey||

    The problem is that calorie numbers don't register with people's feeling NEARLY as much as a tasty dish. When you see a number like 600 next to your favorite burger, you might think "is that a lot? It doesn't sound like much. After all 3 meals/day of that would only be 1800 calories. There must be some other reason I'm fat." Unless you're seriously dieting and adding up all you calories each day it's not going to mean much to you.

    The simple fact NYC doesn't seem to understand is that FAT PEOPLE LIKE TO EAT TASTY FOOD. They like eating more than they want to be thin, and as long as that's true the only thing that will make them thinner is directly controlling what they're allowed to eat and how much they have to exercise.

    I'm also curious how this study presented the questions. I always NOTICE the calorie board at fast food joints because I'm observant like that, but I pretty much never actually READ it. Even if I do read it, there's so much info there that I rarely get to all the things I'm actually ordering before my food arrives.

  • ||

    the only thing that will make them thinner is directly controlling what they're allowed to eat and how much they have to exercise.

    Soon, slutmonkey, soon.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement