Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Nanny State FAIL

The NYT reports:
A study of New York City’s pioneering law on posting calories in restaurant chains suggests that when it comes to deciding what to order, people’s stomachs are more powerful than their brains.

The study, by several professors at New York University and Yale, tracked customers at four fast-food chains — McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken — in poor neighborhoods of New York City where there are high rates of obesity.

It found that about half the customers noticed the calorie counts, which were prominently posted on menu boards. About 28 percent of those who noticed them said the information had influenced their ordering, and 9 out of 10 of those said they had made healthier choices as a result.

But when the researchers checked receipts afterward, they found that people had, in fact, ordered slightly more calories than the typical customer had before the labeling law went into effect, in July 2008.
This doesn't surprise me. I think posted calorie counts only help people who are already health conscious. Yes, studies show that most people underestimate the calorie content of the food they eat, but who really thinks a Big Mac is health food? No one. If you want a Big Mac, knowing it actually contains 540 calories, not the 300 calories you might have thought it contained, probably won't keep you from ordering it. If you've decided to order it, you have accepted the fact that it's not very good for you.

The assumption here is that overweight people are overweight because they don't realize how many calories they ingest. I disagree. I think someone who eats unhealthily knows it, even if he can't quote the exact number of calories he ingests daily. These people at least implicitly accept the trade-off between eating what they want and having a flabby body.

Calorie posting probably helps health-conscious people reduce calories, at least on the margin. If you already watch your caloric intake, the shock that a Dunkin' Donuts bagel sandwich contains 700 calories might make you substitute it. That said, even a health-conscious person committed to splurge on dessert will not be deterred by calorie content.