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Behavior Change
Can Calorie Counts Change Consumer Eating Habits? Or Will the Lure of a Quick, Delicious Fix Always Win Out?

Anyone who exercises regularly or watches what they eat already knows that fast food is bad for your health. But due to the continued popularity of fast food, the FDA has stepped in to try and provide the general public with more information and get them eating better, announcing last week that fast food chains, vending machine companies and other restaurants with more than 20 locations are now required to list the number of calories in each of their menu items.

The main problem these regulations will tackle is the fact that Americans spend half their food dollars, and typical restaurant meals often have more than half the calories that a person should consume in one day.

Some argue that the changes won’t have any effect, including Brian Elbel, a professor at NYU's Wagner School of Public Service, whose research shows that fast food diners take note of calorie information when restaurants post it, but generally don't change the number of calories they eat or the number of times they visit the restaurants.

What contributes to this problem is the fact many people don’t even know how to interpret caloric information when it’s on display. That means increasing public awareness and helping people move towards a healthy diet is another important piece of the puzzle. The FDA seems to be aware of this, which is why it's also requiring these eateries to post a statement that says: “2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice, but calorie needs vary.”

But doing the math at the point of purchase would be much easier in the proper context, as Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health researcher Sara Bleich has pointed out with her proposed nutrition labels that equate a certain number of calories with the approximate amount of exercise required for the average person to work them off.

Another study, which compared Starbucks customer behavior between stores with calorie signs and without, painted a more promising picture.

“People were systematically underestimating their calories in food items,” study co-author Bryan Bollinger, who teaches marketing at Duke University, recently told Marketplace. “So when they saw the information on the board, they were surprised and then reacted accordingly. Consumers can and will use this information if it’s useful to them.”

Restaurants are also responsible for making sure people aren’t putting their health in danger every time they wolf down a calorie-loaded double bacon cheeseburger. Some research does show that restaurants make their dishes healthier in response to requirements to post calories, but others employ certain psychological tactics to get around the regulations.

For example, placing an extremely expensive item in a prominent place on the menu often gives people the impression that everything else is much more affordable. This same tactic could be used with high-calorie items to make people feel less guilty when they chow down on a meal that pushes them over their daily caloric intake in the space of an hour.

All in all, greater transparency can only be a good thing. It means people can make informed choices about what they’re going to eat, and if that happens to be a menu item loaded with calories and fat, then they only have themselves to blame when it comes back to bite them.

That being said, it’s important to note that not everyone has a choice. The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) points out that low-income and food insecure people are often more vulnerable to obesity since healthier food options tend to cost more across the board. So transparency is a good first step, but it’s just as important to make healthy alternatives more accessible and affordable (as McDonald's and Subway took steps to do this past year) across the country.


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