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.


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

  1. Lori

    I can relate to the people who at more calories when presented with the info. A bunless McDonald’s burger makes me feel better when I have to deal with do-gooder busybodies who assume I don’t know what I’m doing.


  2. Randal L. Schwartz

    Instead of all this emphasis on calories, we really need to abolish that word, and replace it with the individual macronutrients, since they each have independent effects on our metabolism. I’d be all for having a government mandated policy that the carbs (net carbs), protein, and fat grams of everything on the menu be listed for fast food restaurants. The problem is that Big Agra would never go for that, because once we run around talking about how carbs trigger obesity (et. al.), they’d see the stuff that they peddle is horrible.

    We don’t need mandated counts of anything. The information was already available to anyone who wanted to go look for it. I found plenty of it in books. This is nothing but a repeat of the mandatory label laws of the 1990s, which did nothing to make people slimmer or healthier.

    1. Jill

      Randal, you imply a good point – whatever the calories, people’s metabolisms may react differently anyway.

  3. Gregg Sheehan

    On a perhaps more ominous note, here in New Zealand we have some “intellectuals” (university ones no less), proposing that the Government impose a tax on saturated fats…

    Is there any chance that you could point a laser beam of enlightenment in their direction? (Or perhaps a nuclear warhead). I have emailed the “scientists” responsible but have so far had no response…

    If I had a laser beam I could aim at people like that, it wouldn’t be to enlighten them.

  4. bill

    Fits right in with what I just finished
    reading: Fat Chance by Robert Lustig.

    His last few sections of the book seem to be
    advocating that government step in and do
    something, although he gives the reasons why its
    hands are tied. Just wait ’til Lustig gets on a
    government advisory committee, or worse, runs
    for office.

    (I’m cribbing here from another post I made on Diet Dr)
    Not only is he not advocating low carb, he advocates eating
    whole-grain bread, along with corn, and such fruit as
    pineapple (highest sugar containing fruit)
    ad libitum. Hello insulin! Calling Dr. William Davis!

    He also makes the comment: “Ornish decries anything with a
    saturated fat…which is highly defensible.” Which comes after
    saying that saturated fat is neither helpful nor harmful

    I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone who hasn’t got
    a good understanding of the reasons for both LC and HF.
    He doesn’t seem to have a good grip on them.

    He really doesn’t come up with any useful answers for
    the regular person and he admits to having a problem
    himself: “I gained 45 pounds during residency, and I
    haven’t taken them off yet.”pg. 69 Physician heal thyself.

    He gives the impression that the only solution to the
    obesity/metabolic syndrome problem is governmental.

    Sorry for the long post, but I found the book counter-
    productive, not to be praised.

    There were some good points in his book, but of course I disagreed with his call for government action. Strangely, he acknowledged how government helped cause the rise in obesity in that book, then called for government to fix the problems it helped created.

    1. desmond

      Reminds me of a satirical “successories” poster…

      GOVERNMENT: If you think the problems we create are bad, just wait until you see our solutions.

      But enough about ObamaCare.

    2. Mike G

      At least Lustig admitted that the liver can produce fat from glucose (from starchy foods) in that book. In his “Sugar: the Bitter Truth” video, he was adamant that the liver can only make fat from fructose. But he still thinks that fiber is some magical substance that can cure disease, which is utter nonsense. If other Fat Heads are considering buying that book – save your money.

  5. Grant

    Good post Tom!

    I would only ad that government officials are only “dazzled” by the worthless, untested ideas of intellectuals because they see them as promising camouflage for their real agenda: expanding their power and increasing their wealth through favors and graft. The opposite of the people who only care about ideas (instead of reality) are the people who only care about reality – and regard ideas as an annoying (if necessary) burden. Politicians don’t fall in love with the stupid ideas that emanate from the intelligensia because they find them bold or exciting or challenging. They do so because they know that the rest of us need to feel that what we’re being forced to swallow is good for us (and not just the bare, naked compulsion it really is; which can never be good for anyone).

    Often the case, but other times it boils down to the old saying that if you’re holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The government hammer is legislation.

    1. Jill

      One issue you ahve to admit is that often when there is an issue in society seen as a bad thing, people start yelling for the govt to fix it.

      THat too needs to be addressed. I’m not necessarily against govt operations in some areas – depends what it is -, but I certainly don’t want intervention based on the wrong info!!

      I don’t have any problem with government performing its legitimate functions either. The problem is that it’s grown way, way beyond “legitimate.”

  6. S. Green

    Love you. Love Fathead. But, I have to disagree here on a narrow point. While posted calorie counts may do nothing to change how most customers order, they can provide useful information.

    I don’t subscribe to CICO. However, since calorie counts and other nutritional information have become more readily available, I am astounded by seemingly reasonable food choices that aren’t so reasonable — items that should be very low carb, but actually have a high carb count or unexpected ingredients.

    If I didn’t already know that IHOP put pancake batter in its scrambled eggs, a calorie count might enable me, with no additional information, to figure out that there was more than eggs in my eggs, since I know the calorie count for an egg.

    Without mandated food labeling, I would not be able to make the choices I want to make for myself. I would have to guess, based on a purveyor’s tantalizing description. Posted calorie counts and nutritional information give me valuable information. While it may be obvious that the McDonald’s meal you described is high calorie, it may not be as apparent that Celestial Seasonings tea, for example, contains soy.

    People can do what they want with the information they have, but if they don’t have information they cannot make choices they believe are correct for them.

    It is all about choice and I want to be an informed consumer. Regrettably, without mandates, manufacturers would not provide details regarding ingredients, carb content and other useful data.

    You would be able to make informed choices. You’d do what I did before nutrition information was mandated: you’d find books and online sources that tell you everything you want to know. The book I held up as an example in Fat Head was published long before government stepped in. People who want to make informed choices find the information. People who aren’t interested in nutrition information don’t change their behavior if you confront them with that information.

    1. SB

      When I was on a dieting frenzy in high school, I would go to a restaurant’s website and find the nutrition info buried somewhere in there. The info is out there, you just have to know where to look.

      I’ve had this site linked on the blog for four years. It wasn’t mandated by government, but there’s a TON of information available on restaurant meals.

  7. Nads

    Trouble with these great ideas is they make so much sense. Like the fat makes you fat theory. And eating cholesterol gives you cholesterol. And energy in, energy out.

    Am awaiting the book “Mistakes were made, but not by me”. I hope it’s as entertaining as your post Tom!

    I think you’ll enjoy it.

  8. Tate

    My only hope is the continued governmental overreach will eventually result in people getting fed up and voting for a smaller government. On a similar note:

    Your tax dollars at work.

    We’ll end up with a smaller government whether people vote for it or not. Sooner or later, the federal government will run out of suckers willing to lend it money.

    1. Susan

      I don’t know. We may be doomed. Dr. Eades posted a link to this article a couple of weeks ago. Basically says distrust of government leads to calls for more government. Catch 22 anyone?

      It does seem to be a vicious cycle at times. We give government officials power they shouldn’t have in the first place, businesses bribe them to take advantage (duh) of that power, and people seeing this conclude that we need more government.

      During The Great Depression, FDR paid farmers not to grow crops on some of their land. Then he learned that some farmers were taking the money but still growing on land they’d supposedly set aside. So he hired regulators to monitor them. Then he found out some regulators were taking bribes from farmers to look the other way. So he hired another group of regulators to monitor the regulators. Never occurred to him that the root of the problem was the perverse economic incentive he created in the first place.

  9. JayMan

    Great post!

    One quibble though:

    “I see. Since we believe people are generally stupid, we’ve now decided just showing them calorie counts isn’t enough.”

    People are generally stupid. Trust me…

    We’ll agree to disagree on that.

    1. Pierson

      JayMan, don’t forget that you’re people too. Really, anything more complex than a rock is able to learn (provided it’s not disabled, of course), so any ‘stupidity’ is really just a case of being unlearned–nothing that can’t be fixed with accurate information

      1. Jennifer Snow

        I think the belief that people are stupid comes from the fact that *applying* information requires just as much learning as *acquiring* information. I know a number of people who are intelligent and educated but simply have no analytical skills whatsoever. They keep sending me articles that I send back saying “post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy” or “selection bias” or whatever and they’re nearly always shocked.

        Unfortunately, critical thinking doesn’t seem to be taught in schools.

    2. Ed

      Sorry Tom, I have to agree with JayMan on this one. Case in point: Obama was elected President…..twice.

      I chalk that up to people being economically illiterate, not stupid. When I’ve explain the futility of “stimulus” programs to open-minded people by summarizing Bastiat’s broken-window fallacy, I’ve seen that “aha” moment in some faces. They didn’t become more intelligent after the explanation; just less ignorant.

      And of course, when a political party’s primary pitch to the voters boils down to “Vote for us! We’ll give you stuff and make other people pay for it!” and the voters are swayed by that message, they’re not necessarily being stupid.

      1. Jill

        Actually the reason Obama got back in was due to 2 main reasons:
        -hardcore campaigning, very sophisticated
        -millions of REpublican voters did not vote.

    3. MITBeta

      There’s no question that 50% of the population has below average intelligence.

      But the grouping around the “average” range is very large.

  10. Warren

    One of the many problems with saying a calorie is a calorie is that then all calories are good calories . . .

    And if all calories are good, you should eat as many as you think you need.

  11. Mark.

    I will say that as a diabetic trying to keep the carbs down, I’ve found nutrition labels a boon. Any breaded frozen food (fish or chicken notably) has about as many grams of carbs as of fat and protein combined, and knowing that helps me resist those buy-one-get-one-free specials. Also knowing that there’s fifty grams of sugar in a jar of marinara keeps me from using it on my meatza.

    Then again, I could figure out such things on my own. They’re just letting me be lazy. And fast food? I know what I’m in for and I don’t need to be told. I ask for a spoon with my McDonald’s breakfast burritos; too bad that so much of the cheese ends up stuck to the tortillas I’m gonna throw out after I eat.

    Labels are useful, sure. I read them. But the theory that mandatory calorie counts will prompt people to eat less and thus solve the obesity crisis is just nanny-stater wishful thinking.

    1. Justin B

      Rather than the breakfast burrito, ask for the ingredients separately. McDonalds, I have found, has the best trained employees when it comes to my strange orders. Just say “a side of scrambled eggs with cheese, a sausage patty…”, maybe some bacon, etc. I don’t go there often, but when I do, I don’t dread it, since I know my order isn’t going to cause 3 managers to need to assist.

      1. Tami

        I agree. Ive been to McDonalds, KFC and Burger King several times since going LC, and McD’s is easily the most adaptable to menu changes and substitutions.

        The last time I went I asked for a salad, no dressing, and a meat patty. The girl didnt even blink, just asked if I wanted the patty packed in the salad, or in a seperate box.

        Changes at BK and KFC usually requires 2 people and my order being repeted back to me several times for clarification.

        1. Jennifer Snow

          I’ve been extremely impressed with most of the local restaurants when I make weird orders. I should try to see if Bob Evans will let me use hollandaise sauce as a substitute for salad dressing. The sauce is great but all of their salad dressings are packed with sugar. They don’t seem to be inclined to charge extra for the hollandaise sauce–they left it off my omelet once and when I asked for it they brought me like, a pint of the stuff. No kidding.

  12. Bean

    I agree that calorie counts on restaurant menus won’t be as useful as the macronutrient breakdown, which I wish they would include. I’m a package-reader. I don’t have a smartphone to instantly look up food information at the very moment when I’m hungry and faced with various packaged-food options. Labels count for me. Especially because I do occasionally treat myself to some carby treat, but I would like to know just what I am choosing before I commit, to adjust the rest of my meals that day accordingly.

    Not everyone can or does run and Google nutritional information. It’s especially hard when travelling. Many things have hidden carbs which you wouldn’t be able to guess. E.g. Tim Horton’s yogourt and berries – sounds pretty low-carb – what IS there should be naturally-occurring – nope, it’s got sugar added, it’s not the same as making plain yogourt and berries at home. But when you’re on the road, you’d like to have a way to know that when you’re making your decision at the only place for miles around where you can stop and eat. (Tragically, it might still be the best choice at Tim’s since everything else there is a baked good…)

    The food labelling laws have recently been changed in Canada, adding gluten to the list of allergens that must be listed on packaging. Again – a huge relief for anyone who needs to avoid gluten, is hungry, and is staring at an array of packaged foods trying to guess which one might have gluten hidden in the catch-all “spices” or “natural flavours”.

    So maybe we agree that the reasons for adding labels are unreasonable – it won’t solve the obesity crisis. However, I think that more information is good, and information right there near or on the food beats looking it up on the Internet.

    I think Dr. Eric Oliver nailed it in Fat Head (I’m paraphrasing): No one is denying that information is good, but the belief that people will stop eating Big Macs if we confront them with the calorie count is based on wishful thinking.

    1. Alyssa

      The best thing to eat at Tim’s is the sausage (or bacon) and egg breakfast sandwich without the biscuit. The yogourt and berries is pretty terrible and would be easier and a lot tastier to stop at a grocery store for some actual berries and plain yogourt. I don’t care at all about calorie counts or macronutrients since I am not low-carb, but I do care about allergen info and its usually pretty easy to find. If I go to a restaurant and they don’t have that info available, I go somewhere else. It’s not something the government needs to get involved with.

  13. Pierson

    Food aside, though, is ‘Intellectuals and Society’ a good book? I’m tempted to buy (and read) it, so should I take the plunge?

    I’ve never read a book by Thomas Sowell that I didn’t love. His book “Basic Economics” ought to be required reading in colleges. I’ve known people who drastically changed their opinions on economic policies after reading it. “The Vision of the Anointed” is also excellent if you want to get a sense of how the “we know what’s good for you, but you don’t” crowd thinks.

      1. Jill

        Pierson I’ve only read some of his articles buyt he has a not-tobe-missed article about how he became a writer and his writing travailsg. It’s hilarious.
        Don’t recall the title though, read it a long time ago.

  14. bw

    A common ‘Theme’ in your work is that others assume people are stupid, implying that people aren’t idiots. I think you’ve surrounded yourself with too many people whio can think properly which has distorted your vision.

    Fact is that there are tons and tons of idiots in this world. If this were not true; auto dealers wouldn’t survive, worms/malware and the like would be gone for good and marketing along with all the tricks they use would no longer exist.

    Of course your main points are still valid, however it’s precicely because there are too many idioits (I’d say 60/70% of the population) that the government and businesses get away with these shenanagins.

    Yes, my work as a programmer and my interest in health and nutrition tend to surround me with intelligent people, but I don’t believe most people are stupid. I’ll grant you that most people are economically illiterate, as I once was even though my IQ was the same as it is now. I credit The Older Brother for alerting me to my ignorance of the subject by thoroughly kicking my ass in a debate about economic policies, which prompted me to ask for some book suggestions. It’s financial and economic ignorance (which isn’t the same as stupidity) that allows governments and businesses to get away with so much nonsense.

    The “people are idiots” belief manifests in nutrition policy when government officials convince themselves that people don’t know they’re ordering high-calorie meals at McDonald’s, so if we just confront them with calorie counts, they’ll eat less. People just aren’t that stupid. When they order a double cheeseburger, fries and a large Coke, they know they’re ordering a high-calorie meal.

    1. bw

      I’m a programmer as well, 3 decades worth… you must not have to deal with end users much 😉

      I don’t think ecomonic ignorance explains all of it, a lot of ignorance in all aspects of live (thanks to public education) combined with laziness and lack of common sense might help explain it. The governement wouldn’t be getting away with treating people like this if people were smart is my contention.

      1. Pierson

        Even so, bw, it seems like ‘stupid” people are really either unlearned or extremely stubborn. As such, unlearned people can easily be educated and taught how to ask proper questions\gather information, whereas stubbornness can also be remedied by experience, perspective, and emotional maturity. There is no ‘stupidity’ involved either way, and that same judgmental attitude is certainly not going to solve the problems it causes. Really, we really are quite aware of our limitations and desires, so there’s no need to keep us all on such a short leash.

        My belief is that the average person has average intelligence. I don’t consider “average” to mean stupid.

      2. Jill

        Don’t forget that the governemtn does not blithely admit to what they’re doing. They lie a lot, hide a lot and dumb down a lot.

    2. Tate

      I don’t think most people are unintelligent. I think they have been conditioned since childhood to respect authority. This is definitely the case with economics. It wasn’t until I was halfway through my MBA that I even realized there were conflicting schools of thought… and I still had to search them out on my own. When it comes to diet, it is even worse. The information that is given out by the government contradicts what people experience, so I think most people try to get healthier by following the guidelines given by the authorities, and when they fail, they decide their condition can’t be changed. So they give up. The labeling doesn’t help because they have most likely ALREADY tried restricting calories and failed, so they just no longer try. I have lost 70 lbs and feel the best I have ever felt by following the PHD, and I still can’t convince people there is something wrong with the USG recommended diet; while being living proof of concept!

      That’s another reason the calorie-count menus won’t make a bit of difference. Calorie-counting rarely works long term — even for people who are TRYING to lose weight. Confronting people who aren’t even trying is useless.

  15. George Wilson

    I wonder how much of it goes like this:

    “Hmmm, Dollar Menu… The Hamburger has 250 calories but the Spicy Chicken has 325.” (estimated calories for discussion)

    “Seems like the Spicy Chicken is the better deal!”

    That goes with the study that shows people given information on calories (i.e. pestered to read) selected items that averaged 49 calories more. Cal/$ is a value proposition too.

    The only thing that might help is for the government to say the McGovern Commission was wrong. Even books that wail on the food business usually note the big process food / carb binge started with that little disaster. I know government is loathe to admit mistakes but McGovern is dead so they could blame him for the problem.

    I doubt we’ll see that happen in our lifetimes. They’d have to say McGovern’s panel was wrong, yes, but they’d also have to admit that the USDA has been wrong every five years since then, whenever they updated the dietary guidelines. Toss in the fact that the USDA is more or less a division of Monsanto, and I’m not waiting for an announcement that their grain-based diet was a bad idea.

    1. Toni

      I wonder how much of the failure has to do with people initially overestimating how many calories are in the combo meal they are planning to get, seeing that there are actually fewer than they anticipated, and then deciding to go ahead and get that milkshake/apple pie/larger size fries. Tom did say that most of the time people overestimated how many calories are in a fast food meal…. I can see the thought process when confronted with actual calorie counts: “Oh, the #3 is only 800 calories… I thought it would be more… I guess I CAN supersize it!”

      Maybe the actual calorie counts do more harm than good 😉

      I don’t think it makes a difference either way. People eat according to their appetites. All these plans to help people trim down by “educating” them about calories are based on the flawed notion that fat cells function like simple savings accounts.

  16. The Older Brother

    People acting stupidly doesn’t mean they’re stupid.

    Given the current zeitgeist (not to mention gazillion-dollar campaign by Big Soda) that calories are calories , “fat – baaaad, grains goooood” propoganda shoveled to people beginning at the elementary school level, and the insanely subsidized low cost of processed carbs, people are actually being quite rational.

    Especially for those with limited resources/choice. Why would you not load up on mac ‘n cheese if you’re of limited means — instead of buying grass-fed beef and then wondering how you’ll eat the other 6 days of the week.

    So what appears (and would be) objectively stupid in a free market becomes the most profitable, rational behavior given the complete distortion of market signals in the current environment.

    Contra-wise, if we can assume that most folks are reasonably able to make good decisions if they have good information, it follows that the way to get them to do so isn’t another massive program staffed by our intellectual betters, but instead to disband the programs from which all of these bad outcomes emanate.

    Which will never happen by choice.


    There you go with that economic logic again.

  17. Mike P

    I had an argument [or “discussion” since they were an intellectual] with a coworker about this recently. I argued they should just remove nutritional information and ingredient lists from food in general and we would all be better off. “That’s a terrible idea! How will you know what is in your food?” was the reply to me. I just chuckled and said “I don’t need an ingredient list to tell me what’s in my food. Veggies, fruits, and meat don’t need labels.” They looked at me like I just spoke another language.

    Great post!

    Our chickens don’t put labels on the eggs they lay, either. I’m going to have a talk with them about that.

  18. Marilyn

    Calories/$. Interesting. The law of unintended consequences might kick in here: “For X dollars, I can get X more calories = more food if I buy the higher calorie item.”


  19. Brenda

    LOL, I had to cover that story for work, I had to read print media and watch newscasts about it all week. One news report in particular stood out, as the two anchors concluded that despite the counts on menus and the fact that the customers were given nutrition guidelines, obviously the message wasn’t getting through. The solution? MORE education about calories. “We just need to keep getting the word out there.”

    That reminds me of another point Sowell made in “Intellectuals and Society”: when the intellectuals’ theories fail, they never conclude that the theory was wrong. They decide it just wasn’t implemented correctly.

    Same goes for government plans that fail, but in that case “wasn’t implemented correctly” usually becomes “we need to make the program even bigger.”

  20. Tom Levine

    “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.”

    The important word here, is ‘choices’.

    Yup. They just don’t approve of those choices.

    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.

      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!

        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.

  21. 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.

  22. Molly56

    “an associate research professor of social and decision sciences”

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

  23. 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:

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

    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.

      1. The Older Brother


        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.”


  24. 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.

    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.

  25. 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.

    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.

      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..

  26. 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.

    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?

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

  31. 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.


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