Calorie Advice Doesn't Affect Food Choices
Scanning the menu at McDonald's, you see that a Big Mac has 550 calories while a Ranch Snack Wrap has 270 calories. Then you are handed some general "calorie consumption guidelines." Does that make you order the wrap or forgo the fries (230 calories)?
Flicker/ColumbusCameraOp A Quarter Pounder with cheese
The answer, according to a new study, is a resounding, "Hell no." Let's think about why that might be. It is because YOU ARE AT MCDONALD'S. You are not at Real Food Daily looking for a seitan-kale wrap with nutritional yeast and cabbage.
Studies have already shown that simply listing calories of various food items doesn't affect people's food choices. So health Nazis thought that if they put those calorie counts in some kind of context, people might pay attention.
"There has been the growing thought that perhaps the problem is that people don't know how to use the information without some framework, some guidance," study lead author Julie Downs told U.S. News & World Report. "So what we tested is whether we could improve food purchasing behavior by offering people general daily or per-meal calorie guidelines alongside food labeling in restaurants. But we found it didn't help at all."
Downs, an associate research professor of social and decision sciences in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, and her colleagues reported their findings in the July 18 online edition of the American Journal of Public Health. (Decision sciences?)
In recent years, some states, such as California and Oregon, and a handful of cities and counties -- including San Francisco, New York City and Philadelphia -- have mandated calorie-posting on chain restaurant menus. Some form of national calorie labeling is also a requirement of Obamacare, so look forward to that.
For four months in 2008, the researchers provided standardized calorie recommendation information to more than 1,100 consumers aged 18 and up just before they purchased food at one of two NYC-based McDonald's restaurants, one in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn. Half of the study took place just before the city implemented standardized calorie labeling on restaurant menus, half after.
Customers were randomly handed either material recommending a total daily consumption of 2,000 calories for women and 2,400 calories for men; material letting them know that a single meal should contain between 650 and 800 calories; or no information at all. (How annoying, but at least they weren't given copies of the Watchman!)
The result: People ignored the handouts and ordered whatever they had intended to order in the first place. They probably threw them on the floor!
In fact, perhaps in a show of defiance, those who received overall caloric information chose to eat slightly more calories.
Downs blames it on a counting issue. "In the end, the bigger issue is that asking people to do math three times a day every day of their lives is a lot," she said. "Because it's not like we make a decision about what to eat just once. It's a lot of decisions. And if you add a cognitive [mental] burden on top of that it's a lot to ask." Yeah, that sounds hard.
Or, could it be that people know what they are at McDonald's for, and they don't appreciate a skinny academic handing them a flyer telling them they're eating too much?
Give me my Quarter Pounder or give me death!
Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook, and follow Samantha Bonar at @samanthabonar.