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Fast-Food Calories: Maybe We Just Don't Want to Know

Researchers from the psychology department at Yale University hung out in a handful of fast-food eateries (McDonald's, Burger King, Au Bon Pain and Starbucks) in Manhattan's Upper West Side; New Haven, Conn.; and Connecticut suburbs of New York City, keeping an eye on customers' behavior. Of 4,311 people they observed, only six looked at the nutrition information provided by the restaurant, whether it appeared on a poster, in a pamphlet or on a special touch-screen computer.

(AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

The authors of the study, which appears in the April issue of the American Journal of Public Health, say their findings suggest that nutrition information needs to be made more prominent, even added to menu boards. Moves are afoot in Maryland and several other states to require chain restaurants to provide nutrition data; restaurants argue that that information is already available by request at restaurants and on their Web sites.

I am all in favor of making nutrition data clearly visible and available to all who wish to see it. But I have a strong hunch that, well-meaning as these efforts to promote menu labeling might be, they're only going to make a difference with a select group of customers.

That may be nutrition-writer heresy, I know. But it seems to me that when you've got your heart set on a Big Mac, the last thing you want is to have to face up to the calories, fat and salt the darned thing contains. Could it be that folks willfully avoid such information because it might put a damper on their enjoyment -- or make them feel guilty?

Do you seek out nutrition data when you eat at chain or fast-food restaurants? Do you think you're more inclined to do so because you're the kind of person who reads a health blog like The Checkup?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  March 30, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nutrition and Fitness , Psychology  
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Gosh, could it really be that people don't care? Of course they don't care. It's not as if most people don't already know that fast food is bad for you, even if they don't know the statistics. The big mac is like the international unit of how bad a food is for you. The only people likely to make use of the information are those who are curious for curiousity's sake or those who have already decided on getting a salad and want to feel sel-righteous.

Posted by: jonathnaleshin | March 30, 2009 9:35 AM | Report abuse

Sorry, but those salads usually aren't exactly a healthy option either. Perhaps the lesser of two evils, but not healthy.

So taking care of yourself make you self-righteous? For the sake of the future health of the country as a whole, I hope that more people become smug.

Posted by: MzFitz | March 30, 2009 9:58 AM | Report abuse

People that look up the nutritional information are not people that have already decided to bet a salad..if they are they may be surprised that many times the salad is the least nutritional thing on the menu at fast food places. If you know you are a person that will be eating out, and you have diet restrictions, you want to be armed with information so you can make the best choices. No, most people don't take the time to look up information. If they did they may be surprised that McD's which gets blamed so much for salt, fats etc is lower than Wendy's, BK etc. And if you watch what you get you can get a meal for under 500 calories at most of your Fast Food choices.

Posted by: JSKite | March 30, 2009 10:00 AM | Report abuse

"The big mac is like the international unit of how bad a food is for you." Best line of the day so far.

I suspect most people just don't want to know. Everyone knows this stuff is bad for you. And when you're doing something you know is bad, do you really want to be nagged about it? The only time I ever go to McDonald's is when I crave a Big Mac. Don't need -- or want -- nutritional information then.

For the places we eat regularly, I check nutritional info at home on the computer. We eat at Chick-fil-A enough that I decided I needed to arm myself, so I pulled up all of the breakfast and dinner choices -- I don't remember the specific details, but I pretty much have my favorites ranked in my head, so I can weigh out the taste vs. health equation while I'm in line.

In a lot of cases, the nutritional info has almost a boomerang effect. I was at Macaroni Grill once and really, really wanted some "bad" dish, but was trying to make healthier choices. So I pulled up their nutritional info on my Blackberry, looked up 4 or 5 different salads and lighter choices -- and found that they were all just as bad or WORSE than my "bad" option. So I said, well, hell, might as well get what I want and just eat half of it.

Posted by: laura33 | March 30, 2009 10:45 AM | Report abuse

I figure if you're already inside a McDonald's you want to be there and nutrition facts be damned. You don't go there for the fruit salad. If you wanted a healthy meal you wouldn't be at McD's in the first place. I haven't been there since I read 'Fast Food Nation.' If I'm in such a hurry for a meal I pick up a rotisserie chicken and green salad in a bag at the supermarket for dinner.

Posted by: Baltimore11 | March 30, 2009 11:26 AM | Report abuse

I look at nutritional information because I'm a member of the "would like to keep her girlish figure" club! For the record, I'm a size 10/12, which is blimpish by New York standards but fairly trim when walking into a highway rest stop fast food place.

I see your McDonald's picture features the fruit/walnut salad. I order that, but I only eat half the walnuts which are the big source of fat in that entree. I also order the plain burger which isn't as good looking as a Big Mac but is about the right portion for me.

I think it's better to check out the nutritional information before embarking on a trip. If we're going on a trip I'll print off nutritional info from the web site and tuck it into my purse for quick reference.

If you wait until you walk in the door you're more likely to order something that is not on the girlish figure list.

Posted by: RedBird27 | March 30, 2009 1:30 PM | Report abuse

I was in NYC last week and saw a banner outside a Dunkin' Donuts for their '6 donuts for $3' promotion, and the banner included "Cal Count: 980-2,870" or something similar. (One hopes that's for the entire half-dozen.) I found this mandated disclosure particularly preposterous since it offered little added value to your nutritional knowledge other than a warning not to eat six donuts in a sitting. Clearly, the law about posting nutritional content needs to be thought through better.

Posted by: OneSockOn | March 30, 2009 1:51 PM | Report abuse

That's a great story, OneSockOn. Hard to know whether they were offering that calorie count in earnest or to tweak us, eh?

Posted by: Jennifer LaRue Huget | March 30, 2009 2:02 PM | Report abuse

I live in NYC and I have not-great eating habits, so I'm more familiar than I should be with this issue. Dunkin' Donuts was an eye-opener for me: I know it's not health food, but not all donuts are created equal, calorie-wise. There is at least one that is under 300 calories, and if you just have to have a donut, that's not an evil choice. But even the low-fat muffins are as caloric as most of the donuts, something you might not realize unless you bothered to look up the info beforehand.

The thing is, NYC's mandatory posting law only applies to total calories, so if you want to know about the specifics of fat vs. carb vs. protein, or you want to know the sodium content, you have to look that up separately.

My biggest complaint about the NYC law is that restaurants post the calorie counts in such small print that you can't see them until you're at the counter, by which time you're expected to know what you want - there's very little time for reflection.

My second-biggest complaint is the issue OneSockOn raised, that calories are listed in a range, but the parameters aren't explained. This is especially frustrating on multi-part items like a value meal. It's easy to figure out the upper and lower limits, but what does adding cheese to the sandwich, but getting a diet soda, do to the calorie count?

Posted by: northgs | March 30, 2009 2:12 PM | Report abuse

To the main point of the article: Despite initial skepticism, there are ongoing reports that the mandated disclosure of Calorie information on *menus* in chain restaurants (and not just tucked away on a website or a requestable brochure) is having an impact on New Yorkers' choice of food items -- and that it's echoing back into the design of recipes in response to consumer demand: see for instance Calories Do Count -, Oct 29, 2008.

Even if you aren't actively looking for it, having that Calorie info right there on the menu confronts people with sticker shock, and they shift their choices accordingly. And, stopping at a kiosk or computer is a delay, when (after all) one of the reasons we stop into fast food places is to get food fast! On the menu, you can make up your mind while you're standing in line; on a computer, you first waste your time at the machine, losing your "first-come, first-served" status, and then stand in line with your mind made up, just waiting to reach the cashier.
To several commenters: yes, there is a lot of utter garbage on most fast food places' menus, but almost all of them have at least a few healthy snacks and entrees. The problem is that you genuinely can't tell which is which without nutrition information: a healthy-sounding salad can be absolutely loaded with Calories because of hidden fat and sugar. There's no way to tell without nutrition information.

Baltimore11: There are plenty of reasons why a health-conscious person would be eating at a fast-food place -- most of them, the same reasons as the rest of the population: convenient location, pricing, going with friends or colleagues who may or may not be health-conscious, extended hours, or because they're just teh only thing available (like at interstate rest stops or in airports). Even if there were nothing but unhealthy choices available, you can always choose the least of all evil -- and if there really is *nothing* healthy at a place that appeals to you, that information lets you make an informed choice about whether to even step in the door next time.

Posted by: mikalra1 | March 30, 2009 2:35 PM | Report abuse

We're only at a fast food place as a last resort but sometimes it's the only option for reasons of time or locale. Recently, the packaging on my burger listed the calories and it was a pleasant surprise--i.e., not has bad as I feared. I think it's the other places, like Au Bon Pain or Panera where you feel the ingredients are more healthful but portions are large that might "get" you.

Posted by: Afriend3 | March 30, 2009 6:51 PM | Report abuse

You bet I look at the data when it's offered, and I wish it were on the menus in every fast-food chain restaurant. If you don't want to look, fine, but why on earth would anyone object to letting other people have the information? Is it possible that you don't realize just how deceptive "eat a salad" is? Salads are the WORST items at many restaurants. Here's a link to chain restaurants rated by Men's Health magazine: . It's an eye-opener for those who think they can judge a food's healthfulness by its name.

Posted by: 5232news | March 31, 2009 1:41 PM | Report abuse

Since I'm a vegetarian I rarely patronize fast food joints and even places such as Applebee's and other chains are unfriendly.
The obesity epidemic is undoubtedly in part at least due to fast food and chain "restaurants." The other contributing factors are junk foods and processed "stuff," including sodas and other "foods" with high fructose corn syrup in them. Evidently most people just do not care about good nutrition and health.

Posted by: MJMU | March 31, 2009 6:55 PM | Report abuse

Since I'm a vegetarian I rarely patronize fast food joints and even places such as Applebee's and other chains are unfriendly.
The obesity epidemic is undoubtedly in part at least due to fast food and chain "restaurants." The other contributing factors are junk foods and processed "stuff," including sodas and other "foods" with high fructose corn syrup in them. Evidently most people just do not care about good nutrition and health.

Posted by: MJMU | March 31, 2009 6:57 PM | Report abuse

If people demand healthy food they will make it. People often have no idea that a meal from fast food can be 1000 calories and they don't know know how many calories they should have. If we have the info better displayed those who care will look and those who don't will ignore it like all the many signs people ignore now.

Posted by: victoriah68 | March 31, 2009 9:57 PM | Report abuse

I am the father of 2 Type 1 diabetic children under the age of 7. (Before you go off on Diabetes and childhood obesity know the diff between type 1 and type 2). I must know all nutritional information of food that is going into my kids so they get the correct amount of insulin. Posting of information is invaluable to me and I bet the few who checked in this study did so out of necessity rather than concern.

Posted by: mscholl32 | April 2, 2009 4:57 PM | Report abuse

My client, The California for Public Health Advocacy, was the co-sponsor of Senate Bill 1420, the first statewide menu labeling legislation. We heard time and again that people know that fast food is bad for you, but we found that they really don't.

Before advocating for this legislation, CCPHA commissioned a public opinion poll conducted in March 2007 by the Field Research Corporation. In addition to finding that 84 percent of Californians support menu labeling, the poll found that an overwhelming number of Californians are unable to identify from among typical fast-food and restaurant menu items those with the fewest calories, or the least salt, the most fat, or the most calories. Not a single respondent answered all four questions correctly and nearly 68 percent were unable to answer even one question correctly. You can test your knowledge here:

The findings of this poll show how difficult it is for consumers to know whether they are making healthier choices from restaurant menus without further information to aid them in those choices. Consumers simply have no way to know the calorie, fat or salt contents of most common restaurant foods. Even choices that sound healthier — such as a “Chicken Caesar Salad” — contain more fat than a choice that would seem to be the obvious high-fat leader, such as “Traditional Lasagna.”

As 5232news said, "If you don't want to look, fine, but why on earth would anyone object to letting other people have the information?"

Posted by: brownmillerpr | April 6, 2009 3:25 PM | Report abuse

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