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Calorie counts on menus don't promote better choices

Diners ignore calorie information, study finds.

By Anne Hurley Jul 22, 2013 11:03PM
More and more restaurants, pressured by the government and health groups hoping to stem the tide of American obesity, are listing the (sometimes shocking) calorie counts of their popular menu items and meals. But there's a growing body of research that shows that even when provided with thorough calorie counts, customers are either not paying attention, or just decide to disregard the data altogether.
The American Journal of Public Health released a study last week reporting that despite many restaurants providing calorie counts for fast food and sit-down menu choices, eaters are simply ignoring them.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University  worked with three groups of diners, providing them with varying lists of information about the food choices at the restaurant they were to eat in. One group was given recommended calorie intake for a full day; one given recommended meal-only calorie intake; and the third group was given no additional information.The result: None of the diners used the calorie-count information when making meal choices.

"People who count calories know that this is a pretty labor-intensive exercise," said the study's leader, Julie Downs, associate research professor of social and decision sciences in CMU's Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. "Making the information available on menus may have other beneficial effects, such as motivating restaurants to change their formulations." But customers just don't seem to want to undertake the math challenge of counting calories, at least when about to order a restaurant meal.

The study was done at McDonald's restaurants in Brooklyn and Manhattan, N.Y. because, the study said, fast-food chains "are especially popular with low-income individuals, who have a higher risk of obesity, and encourage additional calorie consumption by promoting larger meals" at minimal additional cost. With a Big Mac having 550 calories, and a recommended lunchtime calorie intake of 650 for women and 800 for men, a customer could think that might be a fine lunch choice. But "buying up" a full meal changes the landscape:  even a small order of French fries is 230 calories and a sugary soda packs another 170. Total calorie intake for that fast-food meal: 950 calories -- far more than recommendations for either sex.

In fact, one third of study participants with access to the recommendations chose lunches exceeding 1,000 calories.

So simply listing the calorie counts is not going to be a magic solution, especially not the one that policy makers had hoped. Then again, when processed and packaged food labels were added in the early 1990s, few consumers paid attention then, and now most of us at least scan the levels of sugars, sodium, and fats when we buy a new product.

So time (or having, say, Jillian Michaels at the counter of your favorite fast-food restaurant saying, "OK, buddy, we'll be running around this block 45 times to help you burn off that lunch!") may help consumers make better choices based on menu information like the amount of sodium and trans fats as well as calorie counts. But those calorie counts can be only one tool, along with overall better nutritional choices and an exercise plan to help burn those calories.

Everyone wants a fast-food treat now and then. It's what goes alongside that treat in a daily and weekly eating plan that will help keep eaters healthy.

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Jul 23, 2013 11:47AM
I usually eat healthy, but if I want to eat a McDonald's burger, I will eat a McDonald's burger.

Jul 23, 2013 11:44AM
Bottom line is people are going to eat what they want and enjoy.  They don't want to be told what they can and can not have like when they were children.

Jul 23, 2013 12:05PM
I, for one, love having the calorie counts at restaraunts. I will be thrilled for the day when every single restaraunt has calorie counts on their menus.
Jul 23, 2013 11:07AM

As an insulin dependent diabetic, knowing the calorie count is way down on the scale of importance. Just give me the carb count so I know how much insulin to take.

Jul 23, 2013 11:03AM
NO !!!  What did these people think?  Oh - I forgot - it's all about money and who benefits from having to add more regulations!
Jul 23, 2013 11:50AM
And its the same with the warnings on cigarette packs. No one pays attention to it. This is nothing but a waste of time and money. People are going to eat what they want to eat regardless. And if Jillian Michaels tried that with me. I would laugh in her face then dump my soda over her head, and walk away
Jul 23, 2013 11:43AM
Hospital bills,heart attacks and medical fees are the only proven methods of promoting healthy eating choices.
Jul 23, 2013 10:43AM
More nanny liberalism is shown to be a waste..
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