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Will Posting Calorie Counts in Fast Food Restaurants Help Curb Obesity?

Posted Nov 16 2009 10:02pm

I am a person who thrives on acquiring new information and believe that information can be used to modify one's behavior. In short, I am an informavore (see: Are We Turning into Informavores? ). I suspect that many others share this same quality but many in the U.S. population do not. A recent op-ed piece in the New York Times explored the benefits of posting calorie counts in fast food restaurants. Listed below is what I perceive to be the key passage in the article:

Based on the scientific literature, we know that people who seek out and use calorie information are likely to be different from other eaters in many ways, including their motivation to cut calories. Sure, it’s possible that some people who looked at the information were persuaded to consume fewer calories, but it is equally plausible that those who were intending to order lower-calorie meals were more likely to seek out the calorie information. By helping consumers make more informed decisions, calorie posting may be desirable even if it fails to reduce calorie intake. But effective policies to deal with obesity will need to involve much more than posting calories.People eat too much because calorie-dense foods are convenient and cheap, with large portion sizes priced to encourage overeating.

Note the passage above that references "people who seek out and use calorie information." I suspect that they are in the minority in our population. On the other hand, my guess is that the legislators who propose the calorie-posting rules, and the scientists and nutritionists and scientists who advise them, tend to be among those who seek information and are influenced by it. They are also anxious to address the obesity epidemic that we are facing in this country. I personally read calorie counts on labels and would certainly scan them, and be influenced by them, in a fast food restaurant. How many people know that a teaspoon of mustard contains 5% of your daily value for sodium?

However, and as noted above, fast-food-addicts gravitate to these restaurants because of convenience, price, and because the food tastes good to them. These foods taste good because they are loaded with fat, salt, and sugar, all of which have additive qualities (see: Federal Tax on Soda Pop Proposed: Can This Be Justified? ). I seriously doubt that posting calorie information in fast-food restaurants goes to the root of the problem that the rules are intended to correct. Our legislative energies should be directed to policies that work rather than those that appeal to information-lovers.

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