calorie counts

The NY Times reported this week on a study that looked at the effects of New York City's requirement that chain restaurants post the calorie counts of each item on the menu.  The researchers looked at fast food restaurants in high poverty neighborhoods, and compared purchases in New York and Newark.  They found that the average purchase in New York was of more calories after the law was in effect than before, while there was no change in Newark.

The article offers a few hypotheses for why this might be the case.  One possibility is that shoppers were more interested in a good value than in nutrition.  I can testify that, at least for my husband, when we went to Nathans over the summer, the posted calorie counts encouraged him to buy a large drink rather than a small, because he could see that it was  more than twice as much beverage for only a dollar more.

I would also suggest, from behavioral economics, that there is probably an anchoring effect from some of the really absurd things on the menu.  About 1/3 of those who noticed the calorie signs said that they affected their purchases.  Well, people do feel like they took nutrition into account when they pass up the 1,000 calorie triple megaburger with cheese and get the double burger instead.

Some of the people quoted in the article suggests that the calorie postings will have more effect over time.  I'd be highly surprised if that were true.  My guess is that over time, people will pay less and less attention to the signage.

I also think that the law has less impact because it only applies to chain restaurants.  I don't think anyone is surprised to learn that Big Macs are bad for you.  I think people would be more surprised by how many calories are in things that sound like they might be healthy.  My sense is that most restaurants cook with far more butter and oil than almost anyone uses at home these days.

2 Responses to “calorie counts”

  1. jen Says:

    I’ll second your comment about being surprised at the nutritional value of things that sound healthy. Like the McDonald’s salads that have more fat & calories than the Big Mac. Also, some of my patterns have changed based on more data. I don’t live in New York, but a single reading of a magazine article about the relative calorie counts of different fast food offerings resulted in me sewaring off milkshakes pretty much permanently. And if you can’t get the milkshake and feel bad about the fries, what’s the point of even going for fast food?
    That’s my point, I guess: once I’ve made the decision to walk into a certain restaurant, I’m going to get what I want, largely. (Boy is that true of fried chicken.) But this data has had an effect on whether or not I go to some restaurants at all.

  2. landismom Says:

    I’ve all but given up eating fries in the last six months, not because I finally realized how bad they were for me, but because I started tracking my calorie intake on a daily basis, and realized how many calories they had in relation to a normal diet. In other words, they didn’t seem like an abnormal thing to eat, until I realized how out-of-whack my entire calorie consumption was.
    And it’s not just McDonald’s salads that will kick your ass, nutritionally. I used to eat lunch at the Corner Bakery 2 or 3 times a week–all those salads–it’s got to be healthy, right? I guess it’s healthy if they’re the only meal you’re eating that day…

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