Restaurant Nutritional Information - Calorie Content Not Enough | Natural Health Blog

Date: 05/04/2013    Written by: Hiyaguha Cohen

Calorie Counts Not Enough

Calorie Content

An odd thing happens to many of us when we go out to eat: we forget that we're just five minutes down the highway from home and feel like we're on vacation. The restaurant doesn't look like home or smell like home, and so we don't observe the same rules that we follow at home. In other words, we abandon dietary caution and order calorie-laden food that we would never buy for our own cupboards.

Maybe that's why the push to label menu items with calorie content hasn't discouraged diners from pigging out. Who pays attention to the rules when on vacation? Studies show that people eat just as much even when the restaurant nutritional information on the menu warns them that, for instance, the Chicken Alfredo at The Olive Garden contains 1440 calories and 82 grams of fat.1

Then again, perhaps a mere calorie count is just too abstract to scare customers into showing restraint. Calories appear as just numbers on a page--and pitting numbers against the emotional enticement of apple pie or cheesecake doesn't seem to wash.

To discourage wanton ordering, a research team from Texas Christian University set out to discover if upping the ante on restaurant nutritional information might act as a deterrent.2 Instead of merely providing calorie content on the menu, the team arranged for study participants to have menus that told how many minutes of brisk walking it would take to work off the food in question. 

The researchers divided three hundred volunteers aged from 18 to 30 into three groups. Each group got treated to dinner, with options including burgers, fries, desserts, and salads--but only one group received the menus that indicated the "exercise price" of the various items. For instance, the menu revealed that the 450-calorie double cheeseburger would require two hours of brisk walking to work it off. Meanwhile, the second group received menus that instead included only calorie counts, and the final group got menus that didn't list either calories or exercise needed to compensate.

Sure enough, the calorie-count group ordered very much like the no-information menu group did, racking up about the same number of calories. But the group with the menus that indicated the walking required ordered, on average, 139  fewer calories than the calorie-count and no-count groups--a substantial difference if added up over the long term.3 It seems the mere hint that exercise might be required is enough to muzzle enthusiastic eaters.

"A 100-calorie reduction on a daily basis could lead to some weight loss over the long term," said senior researcher Dr. Meena Shah. "We can't generalize to a population over age 30, so we will further investigate this in an older and more diverse group."

The results indicate that hungry people respond better to seeing a graphic representation of dietary consequences versus just knowing the theoretical implications.  If only menus could include photos showing the eater's future belly and butt if they continue on the same dietary course. THAT might be enough to really do the trick.

In fact, in a similar arena--trying to discourage people from smoking--research shows that warning labels don't do much at all. But graphic warning labels, do, in fact, make a difference. A study earlier this year out of the Harvard School of Public Health compared reactions of smokers to text-only warning labels versus labels containing gruesome pictures of people with large tumors, on respirators, and with black, bleeding gums.

They found, not surprisingly, that the graphic pictures evoked more determination to quit from smokers than did the text warning. What did surprise the researchers was that the graphic pictures worked better at discouraging smokers from all backgrounds, no matter their education, income level, age, or ethnicity. The study had been undertaken on the assumption that text labels didn't work because so many smokers come from low-income and non-English speaking homes.4

 "There is a nagging question whether benefits from social policies accrue equally across ethnic and racial minority and social class groups," said senior author Vish Viswanath. "The evidence from this paper shows that this new policy of mandated Graphic Health Warnings would benefit all groups." Perhaps it's as simple as text appealing to the brain, whereas graphic images appeal to the emotions--and emotions always trump thought. The same logic would apply to calories since calories appeal to your rational brain, whereas telling you how much work you're going to have to do to work off a meal appeals to your emotions.

To discourage people from killing themselves with food, then, it might be that the most effective fix would be to show graphics not just of fat people on high-calorie foods, but of people shooting up insulin or twitching from heart attacks--or better yet, dead. We posted a blog a few years ago about the FDA's push to use graphic cigarette labels, including one showing a corpse with a stitched up chest. Such illustrations on menus surely might make some diners lose their appetites. Or does hard work even trump illness and death? If so, then the ultimate graphic might be a person sweating like a pig with a painful expression on their face while working off their latest meal.

Some experts reacted to the study by saying that restaurants should play their part by serving healthier food, in smaller portions. The truth is, though, that won't happen unless there's consumer demand for healthier food in restaurants. Maybe listing exercise requirements combined with graphic warnings would begin to turn the tide, though.  

  • 1. Olive
  • 2. Preidt, Robert. "Eat Less if You Know Time Needed to Burn Calories?" 23 April 2013. WebMD. 26 April 2013.
  • 3. Castillo, Michelle. "Menus that list exercise times, not calorie counts, may lead to healthier choices for diners." 24 April 2013. CBS News. 26 April 2013.
  • 4. "Graphic warnings on cigarettes effective across demographic groups." 13 January 2013. HSPH News. 26 April 2013.

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