I’m pleased to announce that the obesity epidemic will soon be a thing of the past. I know it’s about to end because McDonald’s has announced it will start posting calorie counts on its menu boards:
Starting next week, if you want to know how many calories are in a McDonald’s Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese (750) in comparison to a plain hamburger (250), you’ll only need to glance up at the menu.
See, that’s been the missing ingredient all along: in-your-face calorie counts. Experts on human metabolism ranging from Morgan Spurlock to MeMe Roth to Mayor Michael Bloomberg realized long ago that people who want to lose weight can’t be bothered to look at an easily-accessible menu or go online to find out how many calories they’re consuming. So the experts have been pushing for calorie-count menu boards for years as a solution to obesity. Now they’ll finally see their dream come true.
The fast-food giant announced this morning that they’ll voluntarily begin posting calorie information on all menu boards, including the drive-thru. The move is expected to send rival chains scrambling to do the same.
And we don’t need to concern ourselves with any nanny-state interference because the move by McDonald’s was voluntary, you see. Or was it?
McDonald’s says they’re just trying to help customers and employees make informed nutritional choices, but skeptics say the move isn’t purely based on concern over health concerns and skyrocketing obesity rates.
“The decision to post calorie information follows the Supreme Court’s decision this summer to uphold President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul, which includes a regulation that would require restaurant chains with more than 20 locations to post calorie information. The timetable for carrying out that requirement has yet to be worked out,” writes Candice Choi for the Associated Press.
In other words, McDonald’s volunteered to post calorie information because the federal government told them they were going to volunteer. I’ll bet when my grandfather was drafted to fight in the Pacific during World War II, he didn’t realize he was actually a volunteer.
Setting aside the ridiculousness of “voluntary” compliance with nanny-state laws, the question is: will posting calorie counts on menus make any difference? Will those menus prompt fat people to eat less overall and lose weight?
No, of course they won’t. The busybodies who want us all confronted with calorie counts are assuming that fat people aren’t aware of how much they eat. If they could just be informed that they’re overeating, then by gosh, they’ll eat less and lose weight. That makes about as much sense as suggesting that if I just put less gas in my car, I’ll get better gas mileage.
People whose hormones have put them in fat-accumulation mode aren’t in a state of energy balance unless they’re eating more and getting fatter. And once they’re fat, they can’t remain in a state of energy balance — homeostasis — unless they remain fat. As Gary Taubes explained in Good Calories, Bad Calories:
Clinicians who treat obese patients invariably assume that the energy or caloric requirements of these individuals is the amount of calories they can consume without gaining weight. They then treat this number as though it were fixed by some innate facet of the patient’s metabolism. Pennington explained that this wasn’t the case. As long as obese individuals have this metabolic defect and their cells are not receiving the full benefit of the calories they consume, their tissues will always be conserving energy and so expending less than they otherwise might. The cells will be semi-starved even if the person does not appear to be. Indeed, if these individuals are restraining their desire to curb, if possible, still further weight gain, the inhibition of energy expenditure will be exacerbated.
Pennington suggested that as the adipose tissue accumulates fat, its expansion will increase the rate at which fat calories are released back into the bloodstream … and this could eventually compensate for the defect itself. We will continue to accumulate fat – and so continue to be in positive energy balance – until we reach a new equilibrium and the flow of fat calories out of the adipose tissue once again matches the flow of calories in.
Until and unless obese people fix the hormonal imbalance that drives fat accumulation, they will continue the “over-eating” that’s required to stay in a state of energy balance. Eating less at one meal simply leads to eating more at another, and vice versa. That is, in fact, what the research shows: when people consume a high-calorie meal at a restaurant, they eat smaller meals afterwards. Over the course of a week, they end up consuming a remarkably consistent number of calories, whether they eat any big restaurant meals or not. So perhaps we shame them into ordering a smaller meal at McDonald’s with those in-your-face calorie counts … the end result will be a bigger meal or a snack later.
But that’s assuming the calorie-count menus will prompt people to order smaller meals in the first place. The evidence so far certainly doesn’t support that idea. New York City started requiring calorie-count menus in 2008. A study conducted a year later concluded those menus weren’t affecting what people ordered, as recounted in a New York Times article.
A study of New York City’s pioneering law on posting calories in restaurant chains suggests that when it comes to deciding what to order, people’s stomachs are more powerful than their brains. The study, by several professors at New York University and Yale, tracked customers at four fast-food chains — McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken — in poor neighborhoods of New York City where there are high rates of obesity.
It found that about half the customers noticed the calorie counts, which were prominently posted on menu boards. About 28 percent of those who noticed them said the information had influenced their ordering, and 9 out of 10 of those said they had made healthier choices as a result.
But when the researchers checked receipts afterward, they found that people had, in fact, ordered slightly more calories than the typical customer had before the labeling law went into effect, in July 2008.
The Guy From CSPI reacted to that study with this bit of interesting logic:
Nutrition and public health experts said the findings showed how hard it was to change behavior, but they said it was not a reason to abandon calorie posting. One advocate of calorie posting suggested that low-income people were more interested in price than calories.
“Nutrition is not the top concern of low-income people, who are probably the least amenable to calorie labeling,” said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit health advocacy group in Washington.
Did you follow The Guy From CSPI’s reasoning there? Obesity is largely concentrated among the poor, nutrition isn’t a top concern of the poor, and the poor are the least amenable to calorie labeling – but failure to actually make a difference is no reason to abandon an onerous law that was justified on the grounds that it would actually make a difference.
In a post a couple of years ago, I quoted from a study titled Restaurants, Regulation and the Super-sizing of America. When the researchers who conducted that study compared what obese people eat in restaurants versus what they eat at home, they found (surprise!) little difference:
When eating at home, obese individuals consume almost 30 percent of their calories in the form of “junk food” (ice cream, processed cheese, bacon, baked sweets, crackers, potato chips and fries, candies, soft drinks, and beer). Because obese individuals consume so many calories from nutritionally deficient sources at home, it may not be surprising that replacing restaurant consumption with home consumption does not improve health, as measured by BMI.
The people consuming ice cream, processed cheese, bacon, baked sweets, crackers, potato chips and fries, candies, soft drinks, and beer at home (let’s pretend bacon isn’t in the list) are eating foods that come in packages with calorie counts on them. The calorie counts are there because the FDA started mandating them on all packaged foods in the mid-1990s. As I recounted in Fat Head, our nanny-state-loving media greeted the FDA’s mandate with happy-talk articles speculating that consumers would start making smarter food choices thanks to the new labels.
Boy, that sure worked out well, didn’t it? Look how much thinner we’ve become since the 1990s.
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