Can We Be Tricked into Not Eating So Much?

Just posting calorie counts isn’t very effective. What may work, though, is framing overeating in terms everyone understands

How do we resist when burgers and bacon beckon?
How do we resist when burgers and bacon beckon? Photo courtesy of Flickr user Adam Kuban

Not that any holiday is a testament to healthy eating, but none quite compares to the Fourth of July when it comes to embracing our inner pig.

Exhibit A: The National Meat Institute says that on Thursday, Americans will consume about 150 million hot dogs. That means every other person will eat one dog, although more likely a lot of people will chomp down two or three. And those of us who don’t will be eating burgers or sausages or ribs, after warming up with a pile of chips.

In truth, though, it really doesn’t take a special occasion for us to fall to the siren song of naughty chow. As Stephanie Clifford noted last weekend in a New York Times piece titled “Why Healthy Eaters Fall for Fries,” the dilemma for many Americans when they enter a fast food restaurant is that while their head says “salad,” their heart is screaming “BACON!” She listed some of the more recent hits on fast food menus–the bacon habanero Quarter Pounder at McDonald’s, the bacon-filled tater tots at Burger King, the six-slices-bacon-and-cheeseburger at Carl’s and Hardee’s and the piece de resistance, Dunkin’ Donuts’ egg and bacon sandwich between two halves of a glazed doughnut.

The story also quoted McDonald’s CEO Donald Thompson, who pointed out although the chain spends about 16 percent of its advertising budget promoting salads, they account for only two to three percent of its sales.

Clifford cited a study done a few years ago at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, which concluded that the mere presence of healthy items on a menu actually encourages diners to tumble for the unhealthy ones. Lead researcher Gavan Fitzsimons calls this “vicarious goal fulfillment.” Simply seeing healthy items are available, he says, allows people to feel they’ve made the effort. And then they order meals they know aren’t good for them.

Enough with all the counting

We have ourselves a quandary.

Almost a third of Americans now qualify as obese and yet, to believe Fitzsimons, putting healthy meals on fast food menus only makes it more likely that we’ll gravitate to the bad stuff. There are those who believe that providing calorie counts for meals will start to make a difference. In fact, the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a Obamacare, requires that starting next year, any restaurant chain with more than 20 outlets must tell customers how many calories its meals contain.

Sadly, this doesn’t seem to help much, at least according to several studies that already have been done. Research at the University of Pennsylvania, published in 2011, found that even though most of the study’s participants said they noticed the calorie counts, and almost a third said they were “influenced” by them, they didn’t lower their calorie intake all that much. That’s pretty much what a 2011 study of Taco Time restaurants in Seattle also concluded–that people consumed as many calories in the outlets with listed calorie counts as in those without them.

So what gives? Does that mean that no amount of calorie-guilting will make a difference?

Now it’s personal

Maybe not. Maybe it’s all in the presentation. Some experts believe that calorie totals aren’t all that effective because they make people add up a bunch of numbers, and if they do make the effort, many still don’t realize when a meal has gone over the top.

Recent research suggests that what may work are basic visual cues. A study published earlier this year showed that menus using symbols of green, yellow and red lights seemed to make a difference. A green light was printed next to foods with fewer than 400 calories, yellow lights next to foods with between 401 and 800 calories and red lights next to foods with more than 800 calories. And it turned out that diners ordering from menus without calorie info or symbols ate meals averaging 817 calories, while those exposed to the streetlight icons consumed meals averaging 696 calories. Not a huge difference, but it can add up over time.

Another approach is to make calorie consumption personal. Two recent studies, one at Texas Christian University and another at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine found that telling people how much they would need to walk to burn off the meal they were about to order got their attention.

When you read that it could take two hours of “brisk walking” to get rid of the calories in a quarter-pound double cheeseburger, well, that’s hard to ignore. People using menus providing that information ordered meals with an average of 100 to 200 fewer calories than those without it.

Said Ashlei James, who worked on the TCU study: “Brisk walking is something nearly everyone can relate to.”

Eat up

Here’s more recent research on our eating habits:

  • You mean you’re supposed to get a low score?: Even when they go to restaurants where calorie counts are posted, people–particularly teenagers–grossly underestimate the number of calories their meals contain. In a study published in the British Journal of Medicinelast month, diners’ estimates of the calories on their trays were, on average, 200 calories too low. For adolescents, the number was closer to 300. Oddly enough, the estimates were farther off the mark in Subway restaurants, apparently because people associate them with healthier meals.
  • But it’s nice to have all that time to get to know the bread: For all the beatings that fast food restaurants take, a study by University of Toronto researchers found that the average number of calories in meals of sit-down chain restaurants were considerably higher. The average meal contained 1,128 calories, compared to 881 at fast-food places. Plus, meals at the sit-down places, on average, contained contained 151 percent of the recommended daily salt intake, 89 percent of daily fat, and 60 percent of daily cholesterol.
  • Dreaming of Doritos is way less fattening: New research published last weekend in the journal Sleep confirms the bad news for night owls: the later you stay up, the more you eat.
  • But how will they know what tastes good?: According to a study by Canadian researchers, young children who eat a lot of their meals in front of the TV tend to have higher cholesterol levels than kids with better eating habits.
  • I’ll see your tofu and raise you a carrot: And if all of the above has motivated you to look for a new way to lose weight, there’s now an app called DietBet. Based on the principle of “social dieting,” it gets a group of people to pony up a little money–about $25–and everyone who loses four percent of their body weight in four weeks splits the pot.

Video bonus: Casey Neistat turns calorie detective to see how accurate calorie counts on labels really are. Not very, it turns out.

Video bonus bonus: And from BuzzFeed, here’s what 2,000 calories looks like.

More from

We Used to Actually Set Food on Fire to Figure Out How Many Calories It Had

Is There More to Obesity Than Too Much Food?

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.