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People seem to ignore calorie data; would photos work better?

This week, a contributor to the wiseGEEK website posted a terrific series of photographs that shows what 200 calories look like for different foods.

nutrition info
Researchers found that people provided with calorie information did not use it when making their subsequent food choices.

Most of us are really bad at estimating the calories in the foods we eat. As I reported here earlier this year, a recent study found that two-thirds of fast-food patrons underestimated the calories in the burgers, sub sandwiches, fries and drinks they had ordered.

In fact, about one-fourth of the people who participated in the study thought the meal they were eating contained at least 500 fewer calories than it actually did.

Many cities and states have mandated that large chain restaurants post the calories in their foods on their menus, and when the Affordable Care Act goes into effect in January 2014, that requirement will go national.

But do such listings work? Do they get people to consume fewer calories?

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No, suggests the disappointing findings of a study published last week in the American Journal of Public Health. People appear to be either unable — or unwilling — to use those posted numbers to change their eating behaviors.

How the study was done

For the study, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., approached 1,121 adults just before they were about to eat at two McDonald’s restaurants in New York City. Both restaurants listed calorie counts on their menus.

The participants were randomly presented with either 1) written information about the recommended daily calorie intake (2,400 for men, 2,000 for women), 2) written information about the recommended calories for a single meal (no more than 800 for men and 640 for women) 3) no calorie information at all.

The researchers found that people provided with either type of calorie information did not use it when making their subsequent food choices. Nor did the material reduce the amount of calories they consumed at the meal.

In fact, the people who received the pieces of paper with the calorie reminders consumed an average of 49 more calories during their lunch than the diners who received no information.

“People who count calories know that this is a pretty labor-intensive exercise,” stated study co-author Julie Downs, an associated professor of social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon, in a press release. “Making the information available on menus may have other beneficial effects, such as motivating restaurants to change their formulations. But it may be unrealistic to expect many consumers to keep such close, numeric track of their food intake by using the labels directly.”

Needed: more visuals?

Maybe what’s needed is a more visual approach to presenting calorie information. This week, a contributor to the wiseGEEK website posted a terrific series of photographs that shows what 200 calories look like for different foods.

It’s a simple and sometimes startling reminder of just how quickly calories can be consumed — and why food choices matter in terms of putting on the pounds. For, as the photographs show, to reach 200 calories, you need to eat an entire plate of broccoli, carrots or sliced applies, but only half of a Jack-in-the-Box cheeseburger, a spoonful of peanut butter, or seven Hershey kisses.

Of course, as the brief article that accompanies the photographs points out, “There are other considerations when choosing which foods to eat, such as nutritive value and diversity of your food choices.”

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Still, the photographs make their point better than abstract numbers do. Take a look yourself.