Obesity

Force-Fed the Facts

Will mandatory calorie counts save us from ourselves?

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The 21st century has many problems, but a shortage of information is not one of them. Trying to avoid being endlessly barraged with facts is like trying to stay dry in a hurricane. But no matter. One government body after another has the idea that some people need more information, and it will be supplied or else.

The targets of this campaign are restaurants. New York City has a new law commanding chain outlets to post the calorie count of every item on menus and menu boards. The legislatures in New York and California are considering state laws to require even more extensive disclosures.

The reason, as the New York City Health Department explains, is that "New Yorkers get a third or more of their calories away from home. The lack of readily available calorie information in food service establishments makes it easy to consume too many calories without realizing it."

Imposing this mandate is supposed to help combat obesity. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health asserts that if just 10 percent of restaurant patrons cut their intake by a mere 100 calories per meal, we would see a 39 percent decline in weight gain.

But the entire effort rests on assumptions that are unexamined and unfounded. The first is that consumers place a high value on the information being mandated. Actually, most of it is already accessible (online, among other ways) to anyone who is interested. In many places, it is available onsite, on tray liners or pamphlets.

Americans may say they would also like to see dietary information on menus. But providing it costs money, in a fiercely competitive industry. If patrons really wanted such disclosures, no law would be needed. Restaurants, eager to attract customers, would already be providing the numbers—just as they strive to offer other things that bring in business.

Among the attributes that most people look for when they dine out, nutritional information is below tasty fare, reasonable prices, courteous service, pleasant surroundings, agreeable lighting, and free parking. It's probably tied with clean restrooms and free mints at the cashier's counter.

The belief that more facts will generate wiser decisions is appealing but, at least in the realm of food, yet to be proved. No one seems to have noticed that as nutritional labeling has expanded, so have American waistlines. The federal government first required packaged foods to carry such information in the mid-1970s, and today, we are collectively fatter than we were then.

What does that suggest? Either people don't notice what's in the food they buy, or they don't let the knowledge affect what goes in their mouths.

"You can certainly say that most people certainly don't understand the food label," former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Lester Crawford told the 2004 World Obesity Congress. "And it's not because they can't understand it, it's because they don't care to understand it."

If people don't heed the information they already have, they aren't going to waste effort digesting an additional onslaught of facts. The assumption is that people eat badly because they don't acquire the essential knowledge about their food. But it may be they fail to obtain those facts because they prefer to eat whatever they like. Not everyone approaches dinner as a research project.

There is little research to suggest that calorie alerts will make any difference in obesity rates. In 2004, the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reported that when women of normal weight were given this kind of information, it had no effect on what they ate, and that facts furnished in restaurants were also irrelevant in dining decisions.

A study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that people who dine out frequently are less likely to pay attention to nutritional data than people who eat mostly at home. It suggested that "those who have a less nutritious diet are less likely to use food labels and have less interest in doing so."

As anyone who's ever raised a teenager knows, continually bombarding people with information that is useful or even crucial to their well-being is not always productive. Menu laws may not increase our ability to make good food choices. But they will certainly improve our ability to tune out.

COPYRIGHT 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

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  1. Where is the George Carlin obit?

    Don’t worry I’ll raise him from the dead.

  2. “Tits.” Is sounds like a nickname. “Hey, Tits, how ya doin’?”

  3. Speak for yourself, Chapman. Some of us who possess stronger internal strength and mental agility would find caloric information on restaurant menus quite useful and helpful.

    Which is not to say that such a thing should be a mandate by the government. On the contrary.

  4. “Toots, tits. Tits, toots.”

    Sounds like a snack food…

    “Betcha can’t eat jut one!”

    On the amazingly thin and boring topic at hand, I’m with jkp. More information is rarely bad for the consumer, but not knowing how many grams of fat a Big Mac has is hardly a tragedy requiring the intervention of the state to remedy.

  5. but not knowing how many grams of fat a Big Mac has

    If you don’t know that a Big Mac has a shitload of calories and fat then you’re probably too stupid to read the nutritional info anyway.

    People go to McDonald’s and the like in order to get…many calories (a filling meal) for less money, in a form that they find tasty and is the same no matter where you go. It’s sort of the point.

  6. More to the point, I imagine that someone could gin up a fairly effective “Real Men eat [x] grams of saturated fat each meal. Don’t eat like a sissy!” ad campaign pretty easily.

  7. To older people and those never educated on the matter, the increased information won’t do a bit of good. My grandmother was recently put on a diet by her doctor and told to cut down on her salt intake, and she thought he was crazy because she “doesn’t put a lot of salt on her food.” She also eats out every day and frequently at Old Country Buffet. When we tried to explain that there was a lot of sodium *in* the food, even though it didn’t taste salty, she didn’t get it. I printed off the nutritional info for the restaurants she goes to (for the chains, anyway) and we found out one of the real roots to the problem: the number “400” to express the amount of sodium in miligrams in a side of green beans didn’t mean anything to her. She didn’t know how much she was *supposed* to have.

    I suspect that people will look at displayed nutritional information on menus in much the same way. You might as well display the difference between fiber-removed foods and more whole foods, because without that information, a lot of their other choices will be meaningless. The person who decides what to eat solely based on calories or fat content is going to be really disappointed in the outcome. I don’t make other decisions just based on one or two parameters – why do that for the sake of my health? It just doesn’t make sense.

  8. I guess the only possible benefit to this law (standard libertarian disclaimer – I do not agree with the law) would be that, if people did look at a meal and were shocked by how much fat, calories, sodium, etc. it had, it might cause restaurants to actually alter their food to be healthier. Even if people aren’t choosing foods because they are “healthy,” they may shun foods that are proportionately less healthy to the other things on the menu.

  9. I guess the only possible benefit to this law (standard libertarian disclaimer – I do not agree with the law) would be that, if people did look at a meal and were shocked by how much fat, calories, sodium, etc. it had, it might cause restaurants to actually alter their food to be healthier.

    Then again, it might not. People’s desires are perverse (see 8:42). I imagine there will always be a market for food that’s really bad for the body. Heck, if I owned a fast-food restaurant, I’d play that part up. “You only live once. Enjoy the life you have; eat a fatburger!”

    Of course I’m gonna have to come up with a better name than ‘fatburger’…

  10. LMNOP –
    Burger King does exactly that – and it seems to work.

  11. At Chipotle, they show a range on the menu, like “221 – 712” for a burrito or whatever. I wonder how long they’ll get away with that.

  12. You don’t generally go out to eat if you are looking to eat healthily, as you do not have control over the ingredients. Barring sushi/sashimi, you are basically guaranteed to get food that has more salt/sugar/fat than you would put in your own food. After all, they want you to enjoy your meal, so they are going to try and make it tasty.

    So I really don’t think, as Chapman correctly notes, that the nutritional information matters at all to most people. If you don’t already know that the carb-and-cheese-fest-pasta plus free endless breadsticks at Olive Garden (blech) is a ton of calories, you either don’t care or know so little about food that information won’t help you anyway.

  13. Rhywun,

    Considering the options on a burrito at places like Chipotle, that range seems very reasonable.

  14. But Epi – the claim is that New Yorkers may eat a third of their calories away from home. I understand this – if you eat out all the time, there’s only so long before the novelty wears off and you start ordering more like you would normally eat. Then again, any reasonably intelligent person ought to be able to figure out what is and is not a good choice (health-wise) on a menu – but broad sweeping laws that force everyone to comply for the public good are never for the reasonably intelligent people.

  15. Of course I’m gonna have to come up with a better name than ‘fatburger’…

    Yeah, and it’s already taken. Their burgers are pretty damn tast at 3 AM, can’t really speak for normal times though.

  16. well in todays fast food society, what does one expect? Seems every other commercial on TV now is a fast food joint.

    JT
    http://www.FireMe.to/udi

  17. but broad sweeping laws that force everyone to comply for the public good are never for the reasonably intelligent people

    But as I said, the idiots either won’t look at the information or won’t understand it if they do, so what’s the point?

    The politicians know flat out this won’t do shit. It merely allows them to be paternalistic and claim to be “doing something” while at the same time pleasing the rabid obesity crusaders and public health Nazis.

  18. McDonald’s is back again with their cheap burger specials (49 cent hamburgers and 59 cent cheeseburgers) all summer long. Like Big Oil, they are profiting on the suffering of The American People?. It would be a shame if something were to “happen” to Ronald McDonald. We expect McDonald’s to Do The Right Thing? for The American People?. Don’t make us come up there.

  19. The whole thing just erodes further at the “personal responsibility” part of our culture. It’s not your fault you’re fat – you just didn’t know that the bagel with egg, cheese, and sausage at Dunkin Donut’s has 660 calories, 35 grams of fat (13 sat fat) and 60% of the recommended daily value of sodium. It’s the evil corporations who sell you things you want

  20. The politicians know flat out this won’t do shit. It merely allows them to be paternalistic and claim to be “doing something” while at the same time pleasing the rabid obesity crusaders and public health Nazis.

    One could look at this thing ‘half-full’ and think that the politicians are passing this “sure to do nothing” regulation to appease the health Nazis, thereby protecting the actual bad food for consumption (which, one imagines, are the actual target of said Nazis).

    But that would be foolish optimism, I’ll admit.

  21. The lack of readily available calorie information in food service establishments makes it easy to consume too many calories without realizing it.

    These peop;e lack mirrors and bathroom scales? Access to the internet or public library? If your too dmaned stupid/lazy to take care of your own body (mea culpa) the friggin’ government mandetes artn’e going to change a thing.

    Sheesh.

  22. Thoughts:

    1. Most people are not “on diet,” and when they are “off diet” they order with reckless disregard. Or at least, I do, and I think most of my frends do.

    2. People who are “on diet” would be benefited. This is not a large group at any one time, but includes almost everyone at some point.

    3. So, a large majority of people I think would want information to count calories, but only a few of them would use it at any one time.

    4. As for the point about the information being readily available – it is in some places, isn’t in others.

    5. If you mandate calorie counts you will need a large government apparatus to insure that the counts are accurate. We know that food providers can and will lie about this (see the latest brouhaha regarding Applebees). Expect small businesses to get the shaft.

    6. The benefits are likely to be minimal so long as the only one using it are those few people who at any one point in time are “on diet.” What is needed is not so much technical information but education about how to use that information effectively. What would be more beneficial (but very difficult to mandate) would be for restaurants to suggest entire “meal plans” that are balanced and healthy (e.g. “we recommend for young men in their 20s to get the number four with a diet coke and substitute a salad for the french fries”).

    7. Ultimately, reduction of obesity will require cultural shifts and a responsive marketplace. If eating out is awful, it is largely because that is what the people voted for in the free market. And they’ll keep voting for that regardless of what government might do so long as the governmental approach is command-and-control.

  23. But as a liberal Democrat, I’ve never met a regulation I didn’t like, so I’m marginally inclined to support this, anyway, but with the recognition that the benefits are likely to be abysmally low. Why support it then? I hope someone will come up with a better idea.

  24. But as a liberal Democrat, I’ve never met a regulation I didn’t like, so I’m marginally inclined to support this, anyway, but with the recognition that the benefits are likely to be abysmally low. Why support it then? I hope someone will come up with a better idea.

    You were doing so well, until here.

    I read it, and a blood vessel burst in my brain.

  25. Perhaps a federal study should be initiated to study this problem, combined with a federal program fo a war on fat.

    Concentration should be on the viability of federal zoning and community planning to keep these poison merchants away from the children and the weaker people in our society.

  26. Considering the options on a burrito at places like Chipotle, that range seems very reasonable.

    Right, but I’m thinking they might be forced to list all the ingredients separately at some point.

  27. But as a liberal Democrat, I’ve never met a regulation I didn’t like, so I’m marginally inclined to support this, anyway, but with the recognition that the benefits are likely to be abysmally low. Why support it then? I hope someone will come up with a better idea.

    Jim D – I appreciate the honesty, but WTF? I thought the whole point of being for regulations is to be for “smart” policy. That’s why all your fellow liberal democrats go to post-graduate school to be city planners and public ______ advocates. Why then support a policy you don’t think will even work?

  28. Why then support a policy you don’t think will even work?

    Trying to comprehend that very point is what caused my aneurysm.

  29. But as a liberal Democrat, I’ve never met a regulation I didn’t like, so I’m marginally inclined to support this, anyway, but with the recognition that the benefits are likely to be abysmally low.

    Tell me you are joking and aren’t unbelievably stupid.

  30. I hope someone will come up with a better idea.

    You could always just mind your own business and realize that people don’t really want your “help” and that those that do, already know how to get it……Naaaaaah.

    If eating out is awful, it is largely because that is what the people voted for in the free market.

    OK, how do you reconcile these 2 statements?

  31. The Calorie Posting laws are just the beginning.. Next will be regulating the number of calories being sold to minors (For The Children, of course). Then start taxing prepared food according to the fat content. A Big Mac will cost $1.50 plus $1.00 tax. Canada will require pictures of fat people on the front of every menu, although Americans will see this as too extreme.

    Liberations will be longing for the days when they “only” required numbers on some menu boards.

  32. Free market worshippers complaining about open access to information about products. Love it. What was that about rational actor theory again?

  33. Jamie–What about it? Are you claiming to be rational? I ask because I have my doubts.

  34. Liberations will be longing for the days when they “only” required numbers on some menu boards.

    And in France, Big Mac containers will be labeled with the phrase “Fat Kills”

  35. Anarchy Burger!

  36. What we really need is closed-circuit cameras, with speakers where gov’t employees monitoring can yell at us to exercise every day.

    I read a book where this was done, and it seemed to work out well, with the protagonist eventually coming to love those who yelled at him.

  37. Free market worshippers complaining about open access to information about products. Love it. What was that about rational actor theory again?

    How is being a “free market worshipper” and forcing businesses into a specific operating model ironic in any way?

    Jamie, let me try my hand at this game:

    Liberal privacy advocates demanding that everyone be forced to turn over information, I love it.

  38. Why support it then? I hope someone will come up with a better idea.

    Jim D, I’m assuming this was a trolling post, but you know me, live and not learn… anyhoo, when I read this, I’m tempted to point out that you’re finally admitting to what you kids have been denying all these years. When it comes to all this regulatory business, you’re literally making it up as you go, with no thought to process, results or need. Thanks for the honesty.

  39. So while I was reading the article I kept thinking that menu labeling would probably help me choose healthier foods some of the time. Then I realized that other times, I’d choose food with higher caloric content to get a better bang for my buck. After all, I’m hungry when I’m making this decision.

    Also, since you’re just putting caloric information on the menu boards, won’t this drive fast food corporations to produce foods with minimal caloric content, regardless of whether they’re more or less healthy overall?

  40. If the goal is move people to a healthier lifestyle, then the real solution lies in reforming the healthcare/insurance industry. If everyone had to buy their own health insurance rather than have it provided to them by their employer or government, I predict you would see a major shift away from all sorts of unhealthy activities. The insurance premiums for a non-smoking, non-drinking, proportionately weighted individual would be much less than a smoking, drinking, over-weight person. When peoples own pocket books are impacted, they’ll begin to change their behavior.

  41. The insurance premiums for a non-smoking, non-drinking, proportionately weighted individual would be much less than a smoking, drinking, over-weight person.

    I can understand charging these people more for life insurance. Health insurance premiums should be weighted by how much you use the services.More for sick people, more for women, more for risk-averse middle class twits, more for families and children.

    Fat, drunk ,smoking guys only go to the doctor when their health interferes with their eating, smoking or drinking.

  42. “Health insurance premiums should be weighted by how much you use the services.More for sick people, more for women, more for risk-averse middle class twits, more for families and children.”

    I couldn’t agree more with you on this statement.

    However, you also have to consider that when “Fat drunk ,smoking guys only go to the doctor when their health interferes with their eating, smoking or drinking” that trip to doctor could be a very costly visit indeed.

  43. Elemenope:

    You were doing so well, until here. I read it, and a blood vessel burst in my brain.

    Perhaps your high-fat diet led to an untimely stroke 😉

  44. TallDave:
    I read a book where this was done, and it seemed to work out well, with the protagonist eventually coming to love those who yelled at him.

    I seem to remember that book. Eerie that the author was only off by 24 years, eh?

  45. Drew B:

    However, you also have to consider that when “Fat drunk ,smoking guys only go to the doctor when their health interferes with their eating, smoking or drinking” that trip to doctor could be a very costly visit indeed.

    Actually, this is quite frequently incorrect. After 25 years in the medical field, I can assure you that fat, drunk, smoking guys often tax the system less than anyone else. One ambulance ride, one ER charge to pronounce DOA, and a funeral are probably less costly than a couple of days in the CCU.

    The people who bankrupt the system are those whose physical body outlasts their retirement benefits and any reasonable definition of “quality life” by some 20 years, and require frequent hospitalizations to maintain this living hell.

  46. Some Perspective.

    “In the U.S., there’s an outcry about something as simple as putting calories on restaurant menus as a way to help combat the obesity epidemic. But that’s nothing compared to the Japanese, who now have to face measurements of their waistlines during annual checkups if they’re between 40 and 74 years old, the New York Times reports.”

    For my money (both directly and indirectly) I’d much prefer to see the kind of nudge that NYC is considering with respect to calorie counts –and over which Chapman and others here have been wringing their hands atop a variety of questionably slippery slopes– implemented than seeing the growth of alternative strategies like banning trans-fat (already done) or x-calorie dishes (perhaps looming) outright.

    Calorie counts are a compromise…you know, an agreement reached by adjustment of conflicting or opposing claims, principles, etc., by reciprocal modification of demands. The real slippery slope appears when the debate is framed as all-or-nothing…if the political powers that be are forced to choose between doing nothing and doing something, voters are (unfortunately) going to respond to something far more often than nothing.

  47. Among regulations that could exist, this is a pretty tame one. It is definitely information I want and largely can’t get. Ironically, the restaurants that give the BEST information on nutrition are the fast-food chains. Finding the calories in a Big Mac is easy. Try finding information about food at places like Outback, Applebees, etc, however, and you are SOL. And forget about finding this information for a local restaurant.

    Strangely enough, just about every chain and even numerous mom’n’pops in Japan provide this information right on the menu. It can’t be very expensive to figure this out…indeed, it should cost almost nothing.

  48. I am a pretty staunch libertarian, however i dont really have a problem with more information.

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