If you haven’t heard, the FDA will be requiring restaurants to post calorie counts around this time 2015. Specifically, the FDA rule states that food establishments that have 20 or more locations will be required to clearly and conspicuously display calorie information for standard items on menus and menu boards, next to the name or price of the item. This ruling is an attempt to lower the obesity rate in a country that has seemed to lost control of it. In fact, when New York City passed their calorie count labeling laws in April 2008, many called the move a police state, whose efforts may or may not make a difference to the waistlines of its residents. And that fact is still up in the air.
A series of studies say posted calorie counts don’t make a difference in people’s food choices, but I say nay-nay-nay. (To quote the late comedian, John Pinette, who was known for his girth and love of the buffet.)
And here’s why.
I moved to New York from California in 2010. By that time, New York City had its posted calorie law in place for two years. Before I continue, there are a couple of things you should know about me: a) I workout regularly and train for half-marathons and b) I tend to be a creature of habit.
At this time in my life, I would go to Starbucks each morning and get coffee and a breakfast sandwich, usually the sausage and cheddar sandwich. But after moving to New York and seeing that my go-to sandwich was 500 calories (which negated my morning workout) I decided to switch to the 230-calorie egg white turkey bacon sandwich or the 290-calorie spinach feta wrap. But I am not the only person to do this, according to a 2011 study out of Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Researchers were able to look at the transaction data from Starbucks in New York, Boston and Philadelphia from January 2008 to February 2009. New York was the only city with instituted calorie count posting policy. Here’s what they found: average calories from food per transaction fell by 14%, of which 10% is due to people buying fewer items and 4% is due to people buying lower-calorie food items. When it came to beverages, there was no change—those drinking venti white chocolate mochas continued to do so. What’s more: it wasn’t a flash in the pan, they saw calorie reductions in transactions for at least 10 months after the counts were first posted.
Starbucks wasn’t the only place that the calorie counts effected by food choices for me. I would choose my lunch place by where I could get a lunch less than 500 calories. The calorie counts helped me learn about the low-cal side of a city that is filled with baked goods, especially bagels, which are not usually covered in the current calorie count policies. So when I went to these places I could compare those items to the ones I saw at Starbucks and other establishments that reported calories.
Granted, I am probably more hypersensitive to this because of my fit lifestyle and the fact that I make my living writing about health, fitness and nutrition; and therefore, I will pay attention. There are a lot of people who will not be deterred by the numbers on a menu (as mentioned before, there are studies that say that). And there are many who poo-poo the law because of this; however, it is just possible that this knowledge may one day be enough for someone to make a better food choice.
There is one thing that I know about fitness and that is becoming fit takes one step at a time. Hopefully, posted calorie counts will help more people take that first step.