Calorie Counts

These days no one can scarf down a Big Mac or a triple latte from Starbucks, claiming innocently that they “didn’t know how many calories it had.” Since 2012, U.S. restaurant chains with more than 20 locations have been required to post the calorie content of every menu item.

But new research suggests independent and small chain restaurants, which aren’t required to post any nutritional information, are still causing problems. According to the study, these venues offer meals substantially higher in calories than those from chain restaurants. The study authors recommend the creation of a national requirement for calorie labeling in all restaurants, in order to dissuade food vendors from offering huge portion sizes and to encourage customers to make healthier choices.

On the one hand, such a law could make it easier to eat healthfully no matter where we decide to dine. But it’s also possible that having calorie information so handy could make us too focused on the nutritional value of our food and could render us incapable of enjoying the experience of dining out. Knowing that health encompasses both physical factors (i.e. the risk of obesity) and mental factors (i.e. the pleasure we get from sharing a big bowl of spaghetti with our friends and family), is it possible to have a truly “healthy” experience eating outside our home?

WHAT'S THE DEAL?

In the study, Tufts University researchers looked at 157 different meals from independent and small chain restaurants in the Boston area. To figure out the number of calories in meals where nutrition info wasn’t available, they used bomb calorimetry — essentially setting the food on fire to determine its energy content. Turns out the average meal contained a whopping 1,327 calories, which is 49 percent more than some popular meals from the largest national chain restaurants. In the study’s conclusion, the researchers recommend that all restaurants start posting nutrition info, in order to help customers avoid the kinds of meals that contribute to weight gain and obesity.

That recommendation seems pretty reasonable in light of research that suggests posting calorie counts may encourage consumers to eat less at restaurants. One recent study found that caloric intake declined significantly among women (but not men) at chain establishments including coffee shops and taco restaurants within a year and a half after they started posting nutrition info. But there’s reason to believe that the same findings won’t apply when people dine at other kinds of restaurants.

Why It Matters

Posting nutrition info has its place. It’s a great idea for situations in which we might not be so mindful of the food we’re scarfing down. One of the main reasons people give for eating at fast-food restaurants, which make up a substantial portion of chain restaurants, is (duh) that they’re “quick” Why eat at fast-food restaurants: reported reasons among frequent customers. Rydell, S.A.,Harnack, L.J., Oakes, J.M, et al. University of Minnesota, School of Public Health, Minneapolis, MN. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 2008 Dec;108(12):2066-70.. When we’ve got just a few minutes to grab lunch and what’s in it is the last thing on our minds, having signage indicating which sandwich has the fewest calories (or which clock in too high) can be helpful. It’s not just food that’s a problem — sugary drinks and sodas can he high in calories, too. (Good thing Coca Cola is making its nutrition labels easier to read). And maybe more offices should follow D.C.’s trend, and start posting calorie counts in beverage vending machines.

But, sometimes, we’re interested in a meal that’s more about the whole dining experience and not just about the grub. In these cases, we might actually have given a lot of thought to the meal — not necessarily about its nutritional value, but about the restaurant ambience and the company we’re inviting. More often than not, these meals will take place at those independent and small chain restaurants, the one back home that sells the best sandwich in the world and the one where we go with our families to celebrate. In these cases, food takes on an important meaning beyond its nutritional profile. While posting calorie counts at these venues could make us more mindful of how much soup we’re slurping or how much butter we’re spreading on our appetizer, it could also effectively “ruin” a nice night out.

What would it be like to live in a world where we have constant access to nutrition information? The answer probably depends significantly on the individual. There are certainly people who would benefit, but it’s possible that the consumers who would end up using this information are those who are more concerned with their eating habits in the first place. Recently, researchers have started considering the way posting nutrition info would affect people suffering or recovering from eating disorders. It’s unlikely that posting calorie counts would cause an eating disorder in a person who wasn’t predisposed to one, but it is reasonable to think that being bombarded with nutrition info could make someone a little too obsessed with making sure all their food met certain nutritional standards.

The Takeaway

There’s no right or wrong answer to whether posting calorie counts in all restaurants is a good idea. But if lawmakers do decide to enforce this requirement, health experts should be prepared to carefully consider the psychological ramifications of this change. Eating isn’t just about the physical food, and access to nutrition info can both improve and take away from this important experience.

Would you want your favorite restaurants to display calorie counts? Let us know in the comments below or tweet the author at @ShanaDLebowitz.

Greatist Op-Eds analyze what’s making headlines in fitness, health, and happiness. The thoughts expressed here are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect Greatist’s outlook.

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