Intellectuals, Government Officials and Calorie-Count Laws

More than two years ago, I wrote a post about Thomas Sowell’s book Intellectuals and Society.  Although the book isn’t about nutrition, Sowell’s observations about how and why intellectuals embrace ideas certainly apply to nutrition policies dreamed up by government do-gooders.  Here’s part of what I wrote back then:

Sowell has nothing against smart people, you understand. He’s one heck of a smart guy himself. As he points out in the book, intellectuals are fond of accusing people who oppose their pie-in-the-sky ideas of being “anti-intellectual,” when in fact the naysayers are often common-sense types who oppose basing policies on the latest intellectual fashions and prefer something resembling proof. It’s the attitude towards proof, says Sowell, that separates intellectuals from others who work in practical fields that also require high intelligence.

In intellectual circles, where the talent that Sowell refers to as “verbal virtuosity” is highly prized, new theories are often applauded merely for being bold, exciting, challenging, or exquisitely expressed. (And if the theory suggests intellectuals should be in charge of the rest of us, it will likely be hailed as all of the above.) Once a theory is adopted by a critical mass of intellectuals — thus becoming part of what Sowell calls “the vision of the anointed” — those who dare disagree will likely be scoffed at and dismissed … without a genuine debate centered around little annoyances like proof and evidence.

Intelligent people in practical fields, however, must rely on proof. If an engineer proposes a new theory on structural integrity, it doesn’t matter if the theory is bold, exciting, or exquisitely expressed … if the bridge falls down, the engineer’s career is toast. I was once hired to re-design the security module of a large database program because the previous programmer’s module ended up shutting down the entire system. Nobody cared how bold his design was or how eloquently he could explain why it should have worked. It didn’t work. Period. End of story. Bring on the next programmer.

As Sowell explains, if intellectuals were limited to dazzling each other with their ideas at cocktail parties and in university classrooms, they’d merely be annoying.  Unfortunately, intellectuals often dazzle government officials too.   Now we have a dangerous combination:  people who don’t believe their ideas should be subject to proof getting together with people who have the power of compulsion.  The end result is worthless (or worse) legislation based on theories that haven’t actually been tested.

Which brings me to a recent article from CBS news titled Giving McDonald’s eaters calorie guides did not curb bad eating habits:

Educating people on the number of calories they should eat may not help them make better choices.

A new study published July 18 in the American Journal of Public Health showed that providing people with calorie guidelines did not help them make better food choices, even when calorie counts for each item were available on the menu.

Several states and cities in the U.S. require that chain restaurants reveal calorie information for their items. Congress has already passed legislation to develop a national calorie labeling system in order to aid health care reform.

However, previous studies have shown that listing calories hasn’t exactly helped Americans trim down their waistlines.

You mean a bunch of legislators jumped in and passed a law without bothering to wait for evidence that the law would provide any benefits?  Well, I am shocked.  To quote Senator McGovern, a senator doesn’t the luxury of waiting for every last shred of evidence to come in.  Or any evidence at all, apparently.

People don’t eat less when you shove calorie counts in their faces.  That’s exactly what I predicted when intellectuals and government do-gooders started pushing calorie counts as a tool to stop the rise in obesity.  They apparently believe fat people are automatons who mindlessly go around eating too much.  Shove a calorie count in their faces, and by gosh, they’ll say to themselves, “Whoa!  I had no idea I was scarfing down so many calories!  Give me the salad, please.”

That belief is, of course, utter hogwash.  When I was filming the street-interview scenes for Fat Head, I showed dozens of people a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, large fries and a large Coke, then asked them to guess how many calories were in the meal.  Some guessed about right, but most people guessed too high.  Almost nobody guessed too low.  People who order calorie-laden meals know they’re ordering calorie-laden meals, no matter what the intellectuals think.

But for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that when people are confronted with calorie counts, they eat less at McDonald’s and other restaurants.  Would that lead to a reduction in the obesity rate?  Nope.  Research has shown that the number of calories people consume over the course of a week is remarkably consistent.  When people eat large meals, they compensate by eating smaller meals later.  When they skip meals, they make up the difference over the next day or so.

In other words, how much they eat is driven by the complex relationship between appetite, energy balance and hormonal signals described by Dr. William Lagakos in The poor, misunderstood calorie.  Informing people (whether they want to be informed or not) that their McDonald’s meal is 1,000 calories won’t make a bit of difference in how much weight they ultimately gain or lose.

Back to the article:

It hasn’t helped that fast food and restaurant food still remain calorie-laden. A 14-year study showed that fast food restaurants have only made minimal improvements to the nutritional value of their items, and 25 percent of Americans eat fast food two or more times a week.

Allow me to engage in the logical thinking the reporter didn’t:  If 25 percent of Americans eat fast food two or more times per week, that means 75 percent of Americans don’t eat fast food two or more times per week.  So the sentence It hasn’t helped that fast food and restaurant food still remain calorie-laden makes no sense.  Fast-food restaurants are not the reason a majority of Americans are (by government standards) overweight.

“The general inability of calorie labeling to result in an overall reduction in the number of calories consumed has already been pretty widely shown,” study author Julie Downs, an associate research professor of social and decision sciences in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, said to HealthDay. “So that’s nothing new. But in the face of that, there has been the growing thought that perhaps the problem is that people don’t know how to use the information without some framework, some guidance.”

I see.  Since we believe people are generally stupid, we’ve now decided just showing them calorie counts isn’t enough.  We also have to teach them how many calories they should consume in a day.  That must be right, because it’s the kind of bold, exciting idea that appeals to intellectuals.  Let’s see how it works out in practice:

To see if teaching people how many calories they should eat would help, 1,094 consumers aged 18 and older at two New York McDonald’s locations were provided information on recommended calorie intake before they ordered.

A third of the customers were given a flyer that said women and men should limit their calorie consumption to 2,000 and 2,400 calories per day respectively; another third got a flyer saying a single meal should contain between 650 and 800 calories; and a third were not given any information at all.

After they ordered, researchers looked at the customers’ food receipts and had them fill out a post-meal survey.The researchers discovered that giving people calorie guidelines did not make a significant difference in how they read and used the calorie listings on menus. In fact, people who were given calorie guidelines ate 49 more calories on average than those who did not get guidelines at all.

Head.  Bang.  On.  Desk.

So even if we coach people on how many calories they should (ahem) consume before confronting them with calorie counts, they still don’t eat less.   And yet the geniuses in Congress will nonetheless march ahead with a law requiring calorie counts on restaurant menus.  Businesses will pass the cost of compliance onto the consumers, and taxpayers will likely end up supporting new employees in some federal agency whose job will be to enforce compliance with a law that won’t accomplish anything.

Proof?  Nawww.  We The Anointed don’t need no stinkin’ proof before we impose our ideas on you. Proof is for engineers and software programmers, not intellectuals and government officials.

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142 thoughts on “Intellectuals, Government Officials and Calorie-Count Laws

    1. bigmyc

      Exactly…good point…and therein lies the problem. While calories are indeed important, macronutrient profiles and their ratios toward each other are the most important thing to consider, imo.

      Reply
      1. Jennifer Snow

        It’s also valuable to eat variety so you get access to as many micronutrients in good quantity as possible. People are starting to get goiters again from something as simple as iodine deficiency.

        Sourcing some vital nutrients can require serious research. I supplement but even running down good vitamins is a pain in the patoot!

        Reply
        1. Walter Bushell

          Goiters are being caused by the message to eat less salt where Iodinised salt is the primary source of iodine in most American’s diets. So they add less salt at the table, but continue to eat processed food where the salt does not contain iodine.

          The Law of Unintended Consequences strikes again.

          Reply
  1. erik van altena

    I love the calorie guidelines! Ever since I saw Fat Head I follow them religiously.

    I just stopped misinterpreting them: they don’t mean “be afraid to go over this”, they mean “this is what you’re aiming for”. I try to get 2000 cals in a day, at least. Its fuel after all, just make sure you get them from the proper source as the great big Fat Head teaches us.

    So keep it up: put those calorie counts next to the food products. It helps me to pick something that helps me get to my daily target.

    Reply
    1. SB

      I like the convenience of them too, but the macronutrient counts are more important to me, and for over 10 years fast food places have listed that info on their corporate websites and in a larger poster inside restaurants. People who care will seek out the info, people who do not care will not be affected either way. Why force a restaurant to do something useless?

      My point exactly. When restaurants made nutrition charts available on site, The Guy From CSPI said that wasn’t good enough because people won’t make the effort to walk over to the chart and look. Now … if they won’t make much that effort, they’re not interested, period. Shoving the calorie count in their faces won’t make them interested.

      Reply
  2. Ulfric Douglas

    Loads of people are stupid, and the dumber they are the more wilfully they’ll resist any exertion to learn. This makes stupid people seem apparently more stupid than clever folk, who aren’t as learning-shy. There. Hence : mobile phones.
    The unfortunate thing seems to be the stupider the nastier, but I’m sure this isn’t the place.
    Everything I’ve said is … statistically, or course. 😉

    That’s what I call “willfully ignorant.” Some people don’t want to learn anything new that might force them to re-think their beliefs.

    Reply
  3. Molly56

    “an associate research professor of social and decision sciences”

    OMG and LOL. This just made my day. Might need a drink, though…

    Reply
  4. jake3_14

    Although I agree with your argument WRT nutrition, I would hope you don’t apply the same disdain for other health and safety regulations. The USDA, for example, does a poor job of inspecting meat for health dangers and enforcing compliance with health and worker safety regulations. But that doesn’t mean the regulations are dumb; they just don’t have enough funding to do a proper job (allowing for inspectors on the take). Granted, we have a body of evidence that indicates that unsanitary conditions in food-handling industries make people sick, but there’s no evidence that left to their own devices, corporations wouldn’t follow sanitary guidelines on their own.

    Even in the absence of conclusive evidence, there’s reason to be suspicious, per se, of products introduced into food markets, such as new chemicals, which don’t have to be tested nor reported to the government. As Theo Colbourne proposed in her 1996 book “Our Stolen Future,” we should apply the precautionary principle to untested chemicals. This principle assumes that every new chemical is hazardous until sufficiently tested by itself and other likely synergists.

    I’m not sure where you got the idea that left to their own devices, corporations wouldn’t follow sanitary guidelines. A corporation like McDonald’s has a HUGE incentive not to make customers sick, and they’re very strict with themselves and with their suppliers:

    http://www.foodsafetymagazine.com/magazine-archive1/februarymarch-2006/mcdonalds-usa-a-golden-arch-of-supply-chain-food-safety/

    Even the guy who wrote Fast Food Nation noted that McDonald’s imposes tougher standards on itself than the USDA requires.

    Reply
    1. Elle

      At roughly the same time McDonalds announced they would no longer be using “pink slime” in their burgers, the government bought 7 million pounds of the stuff – for school lunches.

      So yeah, I’d sooner trust what McDonald’s is trying to feed me.

      Reply
      1. The Older Brother

        Jake,

        Farmers pronounce it “MonSatan.”

        But are you citing Monsanto as an example of why we need Big Government?

        That’s funny, because I consider them an example of what’s wrong with Big Government. They, along with ADM, Tyson, etc., couldn’t exist in their current business models without the protection and subsidies afforded by the USDA, et al.

        GMO, ethanol, and chickens “inspected” at a rate of 150 per minute are all results of believing that the government “is here to help.”

        Good example of another Sowell concept (and book) – “A Conflict of Visions.”

        Cheers

        Reply
  5. bigmyc

    Not all “ideas of the annointed” garbage and counter productive…please keep this in mind. I mean, at least a broken clock is right twice a day, am’I right?

    But I feel as if this post and certainly the concept that this post is meant to ridicule are both missing the bigger picture. Caloric totals are indeed inherently helpful, but only for the longer term in that when a person eats fast food (most likely that %75) they won’t do so again for some time. Even those that eat fast food every day know that the stuff isn’t so good for them. They just don’t really care. So, I agree that legislation isn’t accomplishing too much on this front but it still doesn’t hurt to have it listed on the menu, if not for the immediate impact (because there will be none) but for the future’s mindsake.

    Now, this proposed legislation regarding the regulation of supplements, in my opinion, is a far more devious and misaligned crime. Supplements aren’t exactly cheaply purveyed and they won’t get any cheaper once they are controlled and regulated. I just don’t think that posting calories on a menu is that bad of a transgression.

    Personally, living as close to Primally as possible, calories are a non issue to me. I have never really counted them and I certainly don’t today. To me, calorie counts on this menu issue are a great big red herring..with a side of fries.

    I don’t believe the federal government should be ordering restaurants to absorb the cost of calculating and posting calorie counts because there might be some minor theoretical benefit in the future.

    Reply
    1. Bigmyc

      Ok, but how much “absorbed cost” are we talking about? Packaged food is required to show calories so where is the difference?

      For a restaurant (the law doesn’t just apply to fast food)? Preparing multiple samples of every single item on the menu, contracting with a lab to calculate the calories, then redesigning and reprinting every menu. That won’t be cheap. And frankly, even if it only cost each restaurant $100, it’s still a needless expense that isn’t going to make a bit of difference.

      Reply
  6. erik van altena

    I love the calorie guidelines! Ever since I saw Fat Head I follow them religiously.

    I just stopped misinterpreting them: they don’t mean “be afraid to go over this”, they mean “this is what you’re aiming for”. I try to get 2000 cals in a day, at least. Its fuel after all, just make sure you get them from the proper source as the great big Fat Head teaches us.

    So keep it up: put those calorie counts next to the food products. It helps me to pick something that helps me get to my daily target.

    Reply
    1. SB

      I like the convenience of them too, but the macronutrient counts are more important to me, and for over 10 years fast food places have listed that info on their corporate websites and in a larger poster inside restaurants. People who care will seek out the info, people who do not care will not be affected either way. Why force a restaurant to do something useless?

      My point exactly. When restaurants made nutrition charts available on site, The Guy From CSPI said that wasn’t good enough because people won’t make the effort to walk over to the chart and look. Now … if they won’t make much that effort, they’re not interested, period. Shoving the calorie count in their faces won’t make them interested.

      Reply
      1. j

        What big gov should do is force fast food joints to have waiting areas for those that want to take their time and review nutritional info before ordering what they already know is junk food. That way, the other 99% of people, who are in a hurry and could give a rat’s behind about calories in fast food, can just place their order and be on their merry way..

        Reply
  7. scott

    Man when I was younger if only I knew how many calories were in that dbl. quarter pounder w/ cheese super sized value meal with a reg. Coke or that entire large Dominos pizza, I maybe just maybe would have considered how much damage I was doing to my health. But I didn’t get the luxury of calorie counts on the menu. If only some intellectuals would have told me how stupid and un-educated I was, I might have thought twice. Lol yeah, you could have a sandwich called the 3000 calorie heart exploder and people would be lining up to see if it really makes your heart explode and serve it with a soda that has 10x the HFCS of regular coke and call it the Diabetic Death Wish.

    I remember when people were drinking Jolt Cola. All the sugar, twice the caffeine — and everyone knew it. That was part of their pitch.

    Reply
    1. Walter Bushell

      Jolt cola, I remember it well, drank it when I could get it. Surprised it’s no longer with us. It felt *good* to drink, but probably not as good as original formula coke with the cocaine.

      And yes, with a name like Jolt the caffeine and sugar were the point. Did any one then or now drink soda for health?

      Reply
  8. scott

    Man when I was younger if only I knew how many calories were in that dbl. quarter pounder w/ cheese super sized value meal with a reg. Coke or that entire large Dominos pizza, I maybe just maybe would have considered how much damage I was doing to my health. But I didn’t get the luxury of calorie counts on the menu. If only some intellectuals would have told me how stupid and un-educated I was, I might have thought twice. Lol yeah, you could have a sandwich called the 3000 calorie heart exploder and people would be lining up to see if it really makes your heart explode and serve it with a soda that has 10x the HFCS of regular coke and call it the Diabetic Death Wish.

    I remember when people were drinking Jolt Cola. All the sugar, twice the caffeine — and everyone knew it. That was part of their pitch.

    Reply
    1. Walter Bushell

      Jolt cola, I remember it well, drank it when I could get it. Surprised it’s no longer with us. It felt *good* to drink, but probably not as good as original formula coke with the cocaine.

      And yes, with a name like Jolt the caffeine and sugar were the point. Did any one then or now drink soda for health?

      Reply
  9. Franko

    The government shouldn’t be in the business of trying to change peoples’ behavior by mandating such things as calorie information at fast food restaurants. Individuals who choose to eat that food on a regular basis probably could care less what the calorie count is, and probably don’t know how to use the information anyway. What we should be doing is educating kids more effectively about healthy eating habits.

    It’s a bit like people who were convinced Super Size Me was going to deal a death blow (or at least a serious injury) to McDonald’s. The people who loved that film don’t go to McDonald’s anyway. The rest of us watched it and got the urge to eat a Big Mac.

    Reply
  10. Jill

    Some people have issues around fat that have nothing to do with calories, fat content, carb content, eating disorders or anything else.

    An extreme example is that of girls/women who stay fat because they don’t like male attention. Others might simply not care that their tummy bulges as long as they feel OK, especially as they’re not running marathons but take the dog for walk with no problems. Others have other, more important priorities.

    I actually think it’s a good idea to have foods listing their ingredients and calories etc. but i”m a bit of an info junkie. Whether people eat less or more it’s often nice to know the micro info about that stuff.
    But few people want to be told what to do by a bunch of would-be know-alls who still don’t get that fat is good for us and carbs are not.

    Reply
  11. Jill

    A lot of the push for calorie info has nothing to do with real health anyway – it’s about turning us all into UN drones who eat starvation diets and get sick a lot and pushed by unelected NGOs.

    Reply
  12. Franko

    The government shouldn’t be in the business of trying to change peoples’ behavior by mandating such things as calorie information at fast food restaurants. Individuals who choose to eat that food on a regular basis probably could care less what the calorie count is, and probably don’t know how to use the information anyway. What we should be doing is educating kids more effectively about healthy eating habits.

    It’s a bit like people who were convinced Super Size Me was going to deal a death blow (or at least a serious injury) to McDonald’s. The people who loved that film don’t go to McDonald’s anyway. The rest of us watched it and got the urge to eat a Big Mac.

    Reply
  13. Jill

    Some people have issues around fat that have nothing to do with calories, fat content, carb content, eating disorders or anything else.

    An extreme example is that of girls/women who stay fat because they don’t like male attention. Others might simply not care that their tummy bulges as long as they feel OK, especially as they’re not running marathons but take the dog for walk with no problems. Others have other, more important priorities.

    I actually think it’s a good idea to have foods listing their ingredients and calories etc. but i”m a bit of an info junkie. Whether people eat less or more it’s often nice to know the micro info about that stuff.
    But few people want to be told what to do by a bunch of would-be know-alls who still don’t get that fat is good for us and carbs are not.

    Reply
  14. Jill

    A lot of the push for calorie info has nothing to do with real health anyway – it’s about turning us all into UN drones who eat starvation diets and get sick a lot and pushed by unelected NGOs.

    Reply
  15. kimbriel

    I don’t know, yeah, maybe the calorie labeling doesn’t work for the vast majority, but it helps me make my decisions. I know never to eat at Applebee’s. And that a lot of the things I *thought* were low calorie at Starbucks, really weren’t (so I don’t eat them anymore).

    Overall, I do subscribe to LC diets, and don’t worry TOO much about calories, but I like having the information.

    You could have found that information online without the federal government forcing restaurants to shove the information in everyone’s face.

    Reply
  16. kimbriel

    I don’t know, yeah, maybe the calorie labeling doesn’t work for the vast majority, but it helps me make my decisions. I know never to eat at Applebee’s. And that a lot of the things I *thought* were low calorie at Starbucks, really weren’t (so I don’t eat them anymore).

    Overall, I do subscribe to LC diets, and don’t worry TOO much about calories, but I like having the information.

    You could have found that information online without the federal government forcing restaurants to shove the information in everyone’s face.

    Reply
  17. Colin

    A magesterial demolotion of guvment pointy heads, sir.
    Personally I’ve only ever counted calories during one period of my life when my income was so low that I was seeking out the cheapest calories possible and figured that if the food was sufficiently unprocessed I’d likely get the other nutrients I needed. I settled on industrial feedstock muesli, and it certainly made me feel cr*p.

    Reply
  18. Colin

    A magesterial demolotion of guvment pointy heads, sir.
    Personally I’ve only ever counted calories during one period of my life when my income was so low that I was seeking out the cheapest calories possible and figured that if the food was sufficiently unprocessed I’d likely get the other nutrients I needed. I settled on industrial feedstock muesli, and it certainly made me feel cr*p.

    Reply

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