Faced with the reality that your favorite blueberry scone, the one you buy every day for breakfast, has over 400 calories, do you still opt for the pastry? Yes, you probably will.
No matter how much calorie information is on the menu list, people still choose the foods they like, not what’s supposed to be healthier, Carnegie Mellon researchers reported Thursday.
Despite the good intentions of regulations requiring restaurant chains to display the calorie count of each menu item, studies have shown that such mandates do little to change people’s behavior. But the Carnegie Mellon researchers wondered if people were given a little more information to help put those calories into context, would they choose a low-calorie item?
They even found calorie information for each food, more recommendations on how many calories to eat in a meal or in a day don’t deter people from a Big Mac (over 500 calories).
“Putting calorie labels on menus really has little to no effect on people’s ordering behaviors,” says Julie Downs, lead author of the new study published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health.
This is a significant issue, as several states and municipalities across the country — New York, Philadelphia, California, Oregon and Washington’s King County — have already introduced mandatory menu labeling. Soon, national regulations will come into effect, thanks to the new Healthcare Act – and as part of this new healthcare reform legislation, restaurants will be required to display daily calorie recommendations directly on the shelves. menus.
It’s a well-intentioned but unrealistic policy, says Downs. The new data shows that providing that broader context also doesn’t help people make healthier choices.
“The people making these policies aren’t very representative” of the people they’re making them for, Downs says. “They think about what they eat. They think, ‘I’m not going to eat a giant burger, fries and a milkshake for lunch.’ “
To see how real people reacted to menu labels, researchers staked out two New York McDonald’s restaurants at lunchtime – one in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn – and found 1,121 adults, ages 18 to 89. , to participate. At both restaurants, calorie counts were prominently displayed, as required by New York City. Before ordering, one group received a sheet of paper with the recommended calories for a single meal (650 calories for women; 800 calories for men); a second group received information about recommended calories for a day (2000 calories for women; 2400 for men), and a third group received no instructions (similar to most previous studies).
What they found: About a third of study participants consumed more than 1,000 calories during the meal. The presence of additional information on meal or daily feeding recommendations had no impact on food choice. A majority of both men and women ate more than the recommended intake for a meal – and no type of information had an impact on the number of calories consumed, compared to the group without information.
Importantly, according to Madelyn Fernstrom, NBC News’ diet and health editor, the study found no difference between overweight and healthy participants in their food choice behaviors; the obese group did not choose higher calories than the healthy weight group. And both groups underestimated the calories consumed in a meal, a finding supporting previous research.
“These data support the idea that many consumers choose taste, value, and convenience over nutrient density and controlled calories,” Fernstrom says. “And since the study was conducted in a fast food restaurant, the results might not apply to other types of restaurants.”
The take-home message from this new research is not that restaurants should remove the display of calorie counts and calorie recommendations. In fact, one of the limitations of the study is that the research did not examine those who used calorie counts and did eat less, says Fernstrom, because for some people it’s a useful tool.
“When it comes to human food choice, no one would expect this strategy to work for everyone,” Fernstrom says. “But it certainly can’t hurt. For people who don’t care, it doesn’t matter; for those looking for this information, it’s a plus. And there’s also probably a subgroup of people which might glean some information about the calorie count and slightly influence the choice over the choice.”
As Downs says, “I think a lot of it depends on who’s using the information? It’s probably people who are already ordering pretty well, pretty sanely.”
While more information and transparency about the foods we eat in restaurants is a positive trend, Downs adds, “it’s not going to help curb the obesity epidemic.”
Because, says Fernstrom, “counting calories is really hard — it takes a lot of focus and mental energy when done regularly.” Downs thinks a better option for helping people make healthier food choices might be to introduce monetary incentives — not just negative incentives, like bans or taxes on sodas or sugar. “Let’s not just tax sugary products, because that’s only going to piss people off, but maybe subsidize healthier ones as well,” Downs said.
An example she suggests: Offer a small discount to people who order water or a diet soda with their combo meal rather than a regular soft drink. But for now, says Fernstrom, try cutting down your meal combo to a kid’s meal, with a low-calorie drink.