Why Calorie Postings Make Us Eat More

In New York, mandatory calorie postings aren't encouraging healthy eating at fast food joints. In fact, we're eating more.

A recent study conducted by NYU and Yale shows that people living in low-income neighborhoods in New York have increased their calorie consumption after state law required the posting of calories at all fast food chain restaurants in July. We talked to Adam Drewnowski Ph.D., director of the UW Center for Obesity Research, about why we're still eating more despite the blatant postings of calories. 

NSD: What are your thoughts on mandating calorie postings in all fast food chain restaurants in New York, Seattle and California?
AD: Consumers have a right to know what they are eating. On the other hand, the assumption was that people would look at calorie labels and not have a hamburger, which turned out not to be true.

NSD: Why aren’t calorie postings positively influencing our choices?
AD: People eat and make nutritional value choices on what they can afford. Providing information [on calories] alone will not change behavior. You see, food behavior is very complex. We make decisions about food choices based on taste, cost, convenience and nutrition—in that order. If you just provide information about nutrition, people will use it in a way that best suits their wants and needs. Low-income families may use calorie postings to get more for their money. I tend to do that too.  When I go to Subway for lunch, I often order what can get me more calories [to fill me up], not what's healthiest. To people who don't have a lot of money, it may seem like getting the 95 calorie salad would be throwing money away.

NSD: From the study, the subjects said that they believed the posted calorie counts would influence them to eat healthier, but instead, they ended up eating more. Why is this the case?
AD: People in surveys don’t always tell you the truth. When you ask if they’re eating healthy, they say "yes" even if the evidence isn’t there. When people are led by the interviewer to give acceptable answers, they figure out what he or she wants to hear. Perception and reality are not the same thing.

NSD: What needs to be done to get people to eat better as a whole?
AD: We need to be able to identify affordable nutrient-rich foods. Menu labeling allows people to identify affordable calories, as in number of calories per dollar. We need an affordable nutrition index, which calculates nutrients per dollar, not calories per dollar.

NSD: Do you think results would be different if this study was not conducted in low-income neighborhoods or neighborhoods where obesity wasn’t prevalent?
AD: If you go to a neighborhood where obesity isn’t prevalent or if you go to a rich neighborhood, people have more choices. You move into a whole different social class with a whole different set of resources. They don't have to worry where the next meal is coming from. If they don’t eat today, there will be a meal later on. But, with low income people, you have no other choice. This study says it right.

NSD: What’s the psychological process behind choosing what we eat?
AD: It all has to do with taste, cost, convenience, health and variety. And, taste and cost come first.

NSD: How about the psychological process behind changing our eating habits?

AD:  When you decide you want to eat healthy and switch to a diet like South Beach or Atkins or even just eat healthier without subscribing to a diet, you soon discover that the food can cost you up to four times more than the unhealthy options you're used to eating. A lot of people want to continue to eat healthy, but they don't have the money. It all goes back to the idea of people eating what they can afford.

For more information on the initiative for affordable nutrient-rich foods, visit CPHN.org.

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