Why fast food calorie counts might not make people eat better.

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Feb. 16 2010 9:35 AM

The Irresistible Baconator

Why fast food calorie counts might not make people eat better.

If you're having trouble sticking to your New Year's diet resolutions, a new German study could explain why. You might be sick of tracking and calculating what you're eating. The report released this month in the journal Appetite found that people had a harder time adhering to  diets that seemed complicated than to programs that were simpler to follow.

The conclusion doesn't bode well for the growing public health trend of requiring chain restaurants to inform consumers about how many calories are in their food. Several cities already mandate that calorie counts be posted on boards or printed on menus, and five state legislatures have passed similar policies, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. In the supermarket, the Food and Drug Administration is urging food manufacturers to move calorie totals from the back of products to the front, where shoppers can't help but notice them. The idea is that having more access to nutrition information helps us make healthier choices. If people just knew that a Wendy's Baconator had 970 calories, the reasoning goes, they wouldn't eat them, and they'd be a lot thinner.

But that's not always the case, as calorie counts are irrelevant for consumers who don't know how many calories they're supposed to be eating in a day. A surprising number of people still don't, says Rebecca Krukowski, assistant professor of public health at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. During a previous poll in Vermont, respondents' estimates ranged from 10 to 10,000 calories. The default government recommendation is 2,000 calories per day, but that can vary widely according to gender, age, and fitness level.

For those of us who know exactly how many calories we're supposed to be eating, putting a food's calorie content in our faces doesn't seem to consistently help us resist our favorite treats. Chalk it up to the lack of will power, sway of culture, or love of the processed carb, but humans aren't always rational eaters. A Stanford study found that Starbucks customers in New York City bought 14 percent fewer calories from food after a calorie-posting law was passed in April 2008. But they returned to their old cranberry bliss bar habits over the holidays—New Yorkers ate just as many calories as Philadelphia Starbucks customers (who didn't have calorie postings) around Christmas. New York University and Yale researchers found that customers in poor New York City neighborhoods with high rates of obesity purchased roughly the same number of calories from four fast-food chains, where calorie counts were visible, as their neighbors in Newark, N.J., where there was no posting law.

It can also be hard to take the counts seriously when you're not even sure they're accurate. Disciples of frozen-dessert chains Tasti D-Lite and CremaLita in New York City were aghast to learn that the calories in their cups of soft-serve were grossly underestimated. A Tufts report released last month found that many of the listed calorie contents of the food sold in 29 chain restaurants as well as 10 supermarket frozen meals were underestimated by as much as 20 percent on average. Fake ice cream scandals aside, experts say most calorie counts are in the ballpark. Still, you can't completely be sure you're getting what you think you are, especially if food establishments are self-reporting the numbers. Did their estimates include a realistic amount of salad dressing? Parmesan on your pasta? A generous dollop of special sauce on your Big Mac?

Advocates of a national calorie posting law say increased regulation would result in standardized—and hopefully more accurate—numbers. There's even a provision for one in the federal health care reform bill. That means we can expect to see many more shockingly high-calorie items excoriated on the Today show, like the Olive Garden's 1,030-calorie lasagna frittata. The honesty is refreshing, since restaurants won't be able to downplay the caloric content of a menu item by chopping it up into suggested servings, the way Coca-Cola says a 20-ounce bottle of Coke, which looks like one serving, is actually 2.5 servings, explains Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Currently, most regional and state restaurant posting laws already require establishments to post the calorie count of the whole enchilada—even if many restaurant entrées are so large they could feed the whole table.

"People can do the math themselves and divide the items," Wootan suggests. But incorporating such items into a healthy eating plan isn't so easy, especially if there aren't healthier alternatives. It's a guessing game—and a hassle. Does the Olive Garden's mass of cheesy goodness serve two or three people? Will your share be filling enough? Should you ask your waiter to split an entrée in the kitchen or bring extra plates? As the German study showed, making people do more calculations is not the best approach to combatting obesity.

There are some promising signs the math may soon become easier. Many restaurant executives have become so embarrassed by their hefty calorie counts that they're revamping their menus to offer more low-calorie choices. And the FDA, as part of its new labeling movement, is asking manufacturers to rejigger their listed serving sizes to reflect amounts that consumers realistically eat. (Note to Ben & Jerry: People don't actually eat a half-cup of Karamel Sutra.) Still, the surest way to control your weight, experts say, is to develop a sense of what's best for your body so you don't have to depend on the government or a corporation to tell you what's OK to eat. There are no surprises here: Watch portions, eat more fruits and vegetables, cut back on white flour and sugar, learn that a serving of meat is the size of your palm and that a single pancake portion is the diameter of a CD.

Following such principles might be the key to alleviating food math anxiety and helping you keep your dieting resolutions. It's worth a shot, because the list of things to keep track of—in addition to saturated fats, carbs, sugar, fiber—keeps growing. Next on the government's hit list: salt.

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