Calorie Counts Do Not Influence Food Choices
It Looks Good on Paper
Food seems to pose a challenge for most people. Labels like “Made with whole grains” and “0 grams trans fat” sound terrific but are often misleading. Zero trans fat doesn’t mean the food isn’t loaded with sodium and/or sugar, and whole grains aren’t necessarily healthy. Even worse, those items with the best taste are usually the least wholesome.
In 2012, McDonald’s began posting calorie counts on their fast food menus to spur healthy eating. Since then, regulations have been initiated that mandate chain restaurants with more than 20 locations to post calorie counts on all of their food items. The idea is to allow people to make informed choices when ordering fast food.
But that information doesn’t seem to make a difference to those who are hungry. A 2013 study found that Americans don’t even bother to read the calorie counts. They either don’t care or don’t want to know a food’s nutritional value. They simply want to order those items that sound the most appealing.
An Overlooked Necessity
The citizens of this country are at a point where it can no longer choose to not care. People have been complacent for too long about food manufacturers’ practices to dismiss pertinent information now. It’s bad enough we have no idea what constitutes many food items. (Exactly what preservatives are in those fries, and why do the chicken nuggets look nothing like real chicken?) The data that is available needs to be digested and discussed so we understand what we’re putting into our bodies.
Those who don’t want to know what they’re eating probably subscribe to the “ignorance is bliss” motto. They skip a food’s nutritional information so they don’t have to change their habits. But if people don’t accept responsibility for the foods they eat, who will? Fast food joints operate on sensory overload, with soda machines humming and workers buzzing rapidly between food and drink stations. Brightly-lit menu pictures even depict the fare served: Juicy hamburgers piled with colorful fixings and buttery buns beside crisp French fries and Coca-Cola brimming in ice. The sight of these photos is enough to persuade even the healthiest eaters to forego the humdrum salad and opt for a 1,000-calorie value meal instead.
Chain restaurants like Applebee’s and Ruby Tuesday do not serve fast food, but they pose the same quandary to customers: Order a plate of baked fish and steamed broccoli, or have a yummy appetizer sampler with nachos, cheesesticks, buffalo wings, chicken tenders, and mini eggrolls. Given the feel-good atmospheres of these restaurants – drink menus on the tables, dim lighting, fun wall hangings, and background music –it’s no wonder a person succumbs to food taboo - even with nutritional information listed for some menu fare.
Do restaurants need to offer genuinely healthy food items along with the not-so-healthy ones? Many already do, with options like side salads and baked potatoes ranking right alongside the cheeseburgers. Still, customers usually bypass these items when placing their orders, so the restaurant tradition may simply be one of unhealthy indulgence.
One innocent explanation for ignoring calorie counts is that people take time off from their diets when they go out to eat. They consider a restaurant lunch or dinner to be a treat and feel that occasionally straying from conscientious eating won’t cause real harm. They want to enjoy themselves and have a nice meal.
But, for the rest of the population, nutritional information needs to be read so it can influence food decisions. Is it too much to expect calorie counts to immediately change an entire culture’s eating habits? Probably, but that doesn’t mean these numbers should be ignored.
Maybe the next study shouldn’t look at the restaurants doling out these meals, but at the people ordering them. We need to understand what motivates one to order fast food in the first place. Armed with that knowledge, the next best step might be to wipe out the cheeseburgers and offer lettuce wraps instead.