Calorie Controversy: Is Ignorance Bliss?


Are you less likely to order an unhealthy meal if you know how many calories are in it? That was the hope behind New York City’s 2008 law requiring chain restaurants with more than 15 locations to post calorie counts on their menus. The first large-scale study of the law’s effectiveness was published yesterday in the British Medical Journal. So, does posting calorie counts work? The answer is… nobody really knows!

CBS News says the study shows that labels “help fast food eaters cut calories,” but TIME says that they’re “only marginally effective.” The BBC says calorie counts on menus “prompt healthy choices,” but US News & World Report titled their coverage “restaurant calorie counts often ignored.” Keep in mind that all of these articles were published today, and written based on the same study! So what’s going on here? As sometimes happens, the findings of the study are just too complicated to be explained well in a one-sentence headline.

One major finding was that on average, fast food diners in New York reported eating about the same number of calories after the new menus as they did before. Fifteen percent of New Yorkers reported that they use the calorie labels to help make ordering decisions, which can be either encouraging or discouraging depending on your perspective. On the plus side, that 15 percent ate about 100 calories less per meal, which could indicate that the menu postings were effective for those who chose to use them. Unless, of course, the people who use menu nutritional information are more likely to be concerned with health in the first place… you can see why this gets complicated!

In general we think that giving people more information is never a bad thing, but we want to know what our New Yorkers think!

Have the new menus affected how you order fast food? Let us know on our Facebook page!