Starting next year as part of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. “Obamacare,” chain restaurants across America must post calorie counts on their menus to help patrons make better-informed decisions about the foods and drinks they’re buying. New York and a few other cities have already such requirements on the books and researchers have been busy analyzing whether it has had a noticeable impact on people’s behavior.
One early study that compared receipts from fast food chains in New York City before and after calorie postings were made mandatory found no significant difference in consumers’ choices. Still, defenders of the law believe that its effects will become more evident over time.
“The effect of calorie counts is beneficial,” said Thomas Farley, NYC’s health commissioner in an interview with New York Times columnist Frank Bruni. “But it’s small and somewhat spotty and can be overwhelmed by the marketing of the restaurant,” he added.
Apparently, giving people additional information by itself does not necessarily alter their preferences. Most of us act against our better knowledge and judgment at least some of the time, consciously or not. When it comes to food choices, what influences us the most can depend on a multitude of factors.
Preferences for taste and presentation are obvious elements and so are price and availability. Less transparent are the effects of culture, upbringing and emotional components that go into our decision-making processes. For instance, we may limit ourselves to foods we have been familiar with since childhood. We may connect certain foods with seasonal events and practices (e.g. barbecued meats in the summer, cake and sweets on holidays). We may have religious or other cultural reasons to include or exclude some items. Or we may reach for this and that when we are in a particular emotional state (e.g. joyful, relaxed, bored, frustrated, depressed). Also, of course, the marketing efforts of food manufacturers and restaurateurs play a significant role.
What really matters is what your beliefs are before you reach for your food, says Dr. Bryan Bollinger, a professor for marketing and economic policy at New York University Stern School of Business who was involved in the study on the impact of calorie postings. These beliefs are not always examined, which only increases their power over us.
A separate study on the leading factors that influence the typical American diet found that people’s lifestyle and social environment can predict their food choices almost as much as taste, cost and availability. This still holds true for the health-conscious. Demographics and membership in certain health lifestyle clusters predict consumption, including of items deemed as healthful like fruits and vegetables, according to Dr. Karen Glanz, a researcher at the Cancer Research Center of Hawaii and lead author of the study report. In other words, even the most aware and discriminating among us might not be as independent in their behavior as they would like to think.
Nevertheless, educated decision-making is nearly always a step up from operating in the dark, and for this reason alone it makes sense to give consumers as much information as possible. It matters how much of a nudge you’re given, says Dr. Bollinger. Sometimes even a little bit can push you in the right direction.
If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Your Eating Habits – What Makes Them, What Breaks Them.”
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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com. For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).