A story in today’s New York Times, Calorie Postings Don’t Change Habits, Study Finds , detailed evidence that posting calorie counts prominently at four fast food chains, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken, did not reduce the number of calories customers consumed.
The study, which was conducted by researchers at New York University and Yale, tracked about 1,100 receipts of customers in poor black and Hispanic areas in New York City and Newark, N.J. It seems that in these neighborhoods, cost is a bigger factor than nutrition, and posting calories didn’t make a difference. The draw of a cheeseburger and fries at these restaurants is that they are cheap, fast and addictive; waving calorie counts in front of people’s faces doesn’t make much of a dent in those factors. In fact, the calorie-informed customers ordered slightly more calories worth of fast food per person than before the postings went into effect.
About a year ago, Marcia and I blogged about Harvard University deciding to drop calorie counts in its dining halls, and applauded the school for its sensitivity to diners with eating disorders, eating issues or those genetically susceptible to such problems. As we noted, such postings can be a nightmare for those trying to overcome an obsession with calorie counting, exactly what they don’t need in order to recover.
Since the New York City law governing restaurant chains went into effect in July 2008, I’ve lost track of how many conversations I’ve had with people who hate the postings. They were not people especially aware of eating disorders, but just people who felt the labeling was too much information, numbers that robbed pleasure from the experience of dining out. I’ve felt that way too, on my rare trips to Starbucks, staring at an array of choices and feeling bullied into choosing the healthier, though less delicious option. Or say I choose the delicious option. Instead of the happy anticipation I deserve to feel upon making my choice, I feel like a weak-willed body poisoner.
New York City’s health and mental hygiene department will be releasing its own analysis of 12,000 restaurant receipts in a few months, the Times reports. It will be interesting to see if that study examines a broader socioeconomic swath of the city, and what the results are. I hope for all of our sakes that the results will be the same, and the popularity of public calorie counting will begin to wane.