2013-07-23

Counting Calories Is Why You're Fat

According to new research, people will eat their high-fat, high-calorie meals despite knowing the gruesome calorie count, even if they are reminded right before exactly how many calories they should be consuming.

Several cities and states have introduced laws requiring restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus. The thinking behind it: if you tell people how much they are eating, they might moderate their intake and ultimately become healthier.

But the research doesn’t really back this theory up. Study after study (after study) has shown that calorie counts have little or no bearing on food choices (even if Americans say they want the information at their disposal). And a new piece of research shows not only the futility of calorie counts, but also of "recommended calorie intake information"--information that tries to put the calorie numbers in context.

Researchers sampled 1,121 adults at two McDonald’s restaurants in New York City (one in Manhattan, one in Brooklyn) before and after the introduction of the city’s calorie count law. At lunchtime, they handed participants located outside the restaurants one of three pieces of paper: one with recommended daily calories (2,000 for women, 2,400 for men); a second with a per-meal recommendation (650 calories for women, 800 for men); and a third with no recommendation. The researchers asked the volunteers, who were paid $5, to keep their receipts so they could check them out afterwards.

The calorie information made no impact on buying choices. "Providing calorie recommendation benchmarks--such as calories per day or calories per meal--did not reduce calories purchased, nor did it appear to help participants to better use the calorie information posted on menus," the study, which is published in American Journal of Public Health, says. "In fact, we found some evidence that recommendations may even have promoted purchase of higher-calorie items."

Lead researcher Julie Downs, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon, says it’s possible people simply knew what they wanted before they went in, so information is unlikely to sway them. More fundamentally, she says putting the onus on people to make decisions all the time may be expecting too much. "Most meals consist of multiple items--a drink, some food, maybe a side dish. That’s an awful lot of calculations to be doing for your whole life. It may just not be realistic to expect people to do that, especially considering all the other things that they need to worry about in their lives."

Calorie counts aren’t completely useless. Research has shown that calorie information laws can push restaurants to lower portion sizes and substitute in healthier ingredients. As a rule, transparency is a good thing.

But the research suggests that other policies--like outright bans on certain items (i.e. super-sized drinks) or incentivizing restaurants and manufacturers to offer healthier items--might be more effective.

Add New Comment

8 Comments

  • femelmed

    Traffic light labels could be a more effective approach, as some studies have shown. Another study found showing the necessary exercise to burn off food items was effective. We need to keep testing to find what will work, and even then it likely won't work for all groups.

    @femelmed:twitter 

  • William Lagakos

    "calorie counts have little or no bearing on food choices"good riddance!  Knowing how many calories are in something does nothing to inform the consumer how different foods impact their body.  "Calories" from soda have vastly different metabolic and hormonal effects compared to those from salmon, for example.

  • Renato Murakami

    Correlation causation, etc. The title is just plain wrong, and the study proves nothing. I mean, really, the fact that some people who eats at McDonalds don't know how to properly estimate how much or what they should be eating, or that they willingly eat too much doesn't mean that the requirement for fast food places, restaurants, and the industry in general to put the information there has no effect.

    Just remember the alternative is knowing nothing at all... overtime, with interesting visualizations and other methods of understanding the numbers, it will become more widespread as knowledge. But I think tons of people nowadays already makes good use of those nutritional charts.
    It would be a good thing if that raw pure info would be better translated to something everyone could understand though...

  • Naveen

    Counting calories is a way to change behavior in the future. You can see exactly what you should avoid. I doubt you can show calorie information to people who are already sitting down to eat in a restaurant. By that time it is too late.

  • smart3r

    I never go to McD's in search of a healthy meal. When I go to McDonald's it's for a craving or a cheap meal. A lot of americans have a very distorted view of what a healthy meal portion size. 

    Maybe instead of counting calories these restaurants should be encouraged to sell Meals that are actually healthy portion sizes based on that math? Busy people need simple choices. Healthy meal versus the other meal.

  • drosenbl

    One hardly thinks that those eating at McDonalds constitute those most likely to respond to calorie information, or even a representative sample,

  • seanlien

    If the participants were actively looking to lose weight, seeing the calories in each meal would more than likely make a difference. If you're just "testing" people who are already there, their mind is already made up. Maybe it would help the research to estimate the number of calories each participant had already had that day, and how much more they may take in for the rest of the day, and show a set group that information as well. I've lost quite a bit of weight by counting calories with the help of an app, but seeing the calories on the menu at McDonald's has swayed my purchase on a number of occasions. Other times I've gotten higher calorie meals, but tried to even out my intake for the rest of the day or supplement it with exercise.