5 Reasons Why Calorie Counts Failed to Curb Overeating

A report showing that New York's mandatory calorie labeling may have to more overeating has spurred some explanations

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In New York City, a new law requires chain restaurants from McDonald's to Starbucks to post their calorie counts in plain view. But far from curbing overeating, the notices seem to be causing people in poor areas to consume even more food. Only half of restaurant-goers who were surveyed noticed the information, and some people inexplicably opted for higher-calorie foods. So what went wrong? Commentators caution that the law may be too new to have made an impact. But in the meantime, they speculate that poor number skills and consumer irrationality may play a part.

  • Poor People Have Other Things to Worry About, Matt Yglesias writes at Think Progress. He think the counts would work better in middle and upper class settings. "If you introduce nutritional information to a population that's acculturated to spending a lot of time worrying about losing weight, then you can see where the impact would come in. But if you're talking about a low-income community where people are worrying about other things, then what difference is information going to make?"
  • Bad Math, Megan McArdle suggests at The Atlantic. "People may have mentally credited themselves with a savings on one item, and allowed themselves an indulgence in another: 'I ordered a single instead of a double or triple, so I get large fries and a frosty!' They might just be bad at math. Or they might have wanted to look good for the interviewer, which is always a risk in these sorts of surveys. But the receipts don't lie."
  • Free Choice, Sallie James says at Cato@Liberty. " I find it difficult to believe that healthy eating advocates will be content to accept that people are making choices, unpalatable though they may be to the 'slow food' movement, based on the benefits and costs of the alternatives available to them."
  • Irrational Consumers,  Jonah Lehrer writes at Frontal Cortex, a science blog. "Our food decisions are typically driven by emotional desire, not explicit calculations of calorie counts. And so we continue to chase pleasure, even though we now know exactly how much fatter our pleasure will make us," he said. "Part of the challenge is that energy itself is delicious."
  • The Impotence of Numbers, Jacob Sullum writes at Reason. "Information accomplishes nothing unless people are motivated to use it." Sullum says, "the impact of making it more conspicuous therefore would be limited to the customers who are least inclined to use it."
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