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Why we need calorie information on menus

Let's say you take your family to Claim Jumper for a delicious dinner. You're trying to eat a bit better lately, so you'd like to make a relatively low-calorie dining choice. Should you order the spicy jambalaya, the "widow maker" burger, the cobb salad, the whiskey-apple glazed chicken, or the homemade beef stew?

Answer here. I bet you got it wrong. And let's not even get into the sodium.

By Ezra Klein  |  April 21, 2010; 10:06 AM ET
Categories:  Food  
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Actually, I got it right. You can never go wrong with stew.

Posted by: rmrice1 | April 21, 2010 10:15 AM | Report abuse

Anyone who is is trying to eat a bit better lately but takes his family to Claim Jumper is a moron.

Posted by: ostap666 | April 21, 2010 10:29 AM | Report abuse

Jesus is this stupid. If you exercise and eat responsibly, cooking most of your own meals and eating fresh foods, you don't at all need to worry about what's in the odd Claim Jumper plate o'lard. If you don't, knowing what's in the plate o'lard isn't going to help you. This sort of nonsense just plays into the worst stereotypes about liberals.

Posted by: Caliwhornia | April 21, 2010 10:38 AM | Report abuse

i remember that they had a chocolate cake that was very, very, very ,very big!!!!

Posted by: jkaren | April 21, 2010 10:38 AM | Report abuse

I like Ambinder's suggestion of starting to aim our fat-stigma toward the producers and servers of these gutbombs. How can we be expected to maintain a normal weight when the restaurants we eat at have 917-calorie *zucchini spears*

Posted by: RotteninDenmark | April 21, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

In Claim Jumper's defense (somewhat), one of the reasons those calorie counts are so high is because their portions are HUGE! That jambalaya looks incredibly unhealthy, but spread that over three days and, well, it's still unhealthy, but not quite as bad for you. And with all that sodium, it should easily last three days.

The problem with Claim Jumper isn't so much that it's unhealthy. It's that the food isn't very good.

jkaren, I believe that chocolate cake is like six layers. Goes nicely with the freaking bowl of apple pie.

Posted by: WHS26 | April 21, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

Caliwhornia: You're wrong and I think why you're wrong is a big part of why so many people are fat. Nutrition is a quantitative problem. Eating "bad food" isn't what makes people fat, eating more than they burn is what makes people fat. (Although the math can be a bit more complicated than mere calorie counting would imply.) The difference between the Jambalaya and the Beef Stew is over a thousand calories. A thousand calories here, a thousand calories there, and before long you're talking about real weight loss.

Posted by: usergoogol | April 21, 2010 10:44 AM | Report abuse

Yeah... I was thinking Jambalaya. It's like a soup, there can't be too many calories in that.

Posted by: donhalljobs | April 21, 2010 10:47 AM | Report abuse

usergoogol: I'm not wrong. If you're trying to lose weight you shouldn't eat at Claim Jumper. If you're not and you're doing any exercise at all you can eat slop every once in a while and be more than fine. Cycling for an hour at a moderate speed twice a week will take care of that extra thousand calories easily. I cycle a lot more than that and if I had a taste for chemically enhanced cardboard I could eat all of it I wanted without any real ill effects.

The point is that instead of looking to some quick fix regulatory solution we need to address the real problems, which are that people eat too many industrially processed non foods and don't exercise enough. I don't have a problem with menu labeling as such, but I very much do have a problem with the idea that this sort of thing will do much to solve a serious public health problem.

Posted by: Caliwhornia | April 21, 2010 10:55 AM | Report abuse

This sort of nonsense just plays into the worst stereotypes about liberals. Stereotypes?

Posted by: obrier2 | April 21, 2010 11:01 AM | Report abuse

Nope, I got it right. Skip the bread bowl and you might get the beef stew down into a reasonably healthy calorie range. The problem I see is that calories aren't calories, if you know what I mean. For example, there's a lot of evidence that sugars and highly processed carbohydrates are worse than say eating the same caloric value of chicken, or salmon, or blueberries, or nuts, which might actually be good for you. Calories are only a piece of the puzzle.

Posted by: AuthorEditor | April 21, 2010 11:17 AM | Report abuse

"The point is that instead of looking to some quick fix regulatory solution we need to address the real problems, which are that people eat too many industrially processed non foods and don't exercise enough."

And how exactly do you propose we address the "real problems"? In specific terms?

Personally, I'm of the "every little bit helps" mindset. If I'm ever stuck going to this hellhole of a restaurant, then I want information that will tell me either what is least likely to kill me or what is most likely to kill me. (I may get desperate enough to want to coin the term "suicide by whiskey-apple glazed chicken".)

Posted by: slag | April 21, 2010 11:17 AM | Report abuse

so Caliwhornia is talking about "addressing the real problems, which are that people eat too many industrially processed non foods" but also bemoaning liberals who are attempting to do something about it. No cognitive dissonance there.

Posted by: Quant | April 21, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse


if you consider a restaurant a "hell-hole" why would you go in there unless at gunpoint?

If you're going to have any of those dishes just make sure you walk home. And don't eat there late at night either. If we all took common sense approaches to our diet then we could help a lot but the general public doesn't have a clue. Maybe labeling would help, it can't hurt. I also agree with the philosophy of every little bit can help and we have to start somewhere. This is as good a place as any.

Posted by: visionbrkr | April 21, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

If you are serious about eating better, you can only eat out at fairly expensive places that you know serve reasonably healthy, moderate sized meals, and even then sodium problem is almost insurmountable of it is a problem for you. So it is better to eat at home and cook it yourself. But that is time-consuming and takes some skill and planning. So yes, I say go after the manufacturers and the restaurants and get them to reduce sodium and portion size.

But ultimately it is the consumer's problem to solve, and that gets back to leading a less sedentary life with better food choices. But none of this is easy for most people, because we have let our cultural habits be shaped by profit-driven industries and because life is pretty stressful for most people to the point that eating is seen as a chance to treat yourself even if it means poor health down the road.

Posted by: Mimikatz | April 21, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse

Holy Moley! I've been successfully losing weight (under doctors orders) by eating 1850 calories per day. That's "per day". Even a a normal male should be eating in the range of 2000-2400 daily. And a number of these meals are over 3000, one of them over 4000.

An obesity problem? The answer is right here.

Posted by: ADCWonk | April 21, 2010 11:36 AM | Report abuse

I got it right. But they should still display the calories. For a simple reason--it's more information, useful information, and makes those of us that tend to be--ah--heftier--well, it can make us think twice. That is, it's easier to talk myself into the 2500 calorie pasta if I don't see the 2500 calories on the menu. I would tend to select things by lower calorie counts, or pass things altogether, if the actual calorie information was there.

I'm sure others are different. But it would radically change what I order. In fact, when I go get a steak at Coltons, I always get the string beans. Common sense (and my taste buds) tell me the string beans are probably 500-700 calories. But maybe they aren't. Maybe they just taste so deliciously, butter-dripping good because it's a special kind of green bean. Who knows?

Well, I would, if they displayed the calorie count. Then I'd have to get the steamed vegetables. And maybe only eat some of those (because many restaurants brush the steamed vegetables with oil or butter).

I agree with Mimikatz, that it is the consumers problem to solve. But more information about what we are doing in the moment helps. If we see what the calories are, so we know that the "healthy choice" we're making actually has more calories than the smaller portion of the thing we really want, anyway . . . that helps. Just as pedometers, nutrition labels, and heart rate monitors and miles-walked indicators on the treadmill help.

In the end, the consumer has to make choice, but the more information that is available, the better those choices can be for some people.

Frankly, I'm for less regulation regarding what can be sold (I'm fairly libertarian about it) and more regarding providing accurate information about what the person is buying. And that includes in restaurants.

They should also have to provide information on the calorie content of beer and mixed drinks. Just sayin'.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | April 21, 2010 11:47 AM | Report abuse

I actually got it right, because of two things.

1) You pretty much said "it's ain't the salad", with your foreshadowing. And,
2) I make beef stews in the crock pot, and (at least how I do it) they are pretty healthy. Not sure what they are doing to their stew, though. I'm certain my beef cubes and veggies aren't clocking in at 1,400 calories! It must be all gravy...

I'll close with my hope for this policy. I hope restaurants actually re-work the menu a bit in order to avoid public embarrassment. I'm not as hopeful that people will drastically change their choices, but that chains will not want to be seen as the worst offender (providing for a race to the top, for a change). Remains to be seen, though.

Posted by: rat-raceparent | April 21, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

As a society, I think we should just agree that chopped salads are gross and should be banned... and all these other considerations would be moot.

Posted by: JWHamner | April 21, 2010 12:45 PM | Report abuse

In specific terms we need a Pigovian tax on non-foods, quasi-foods and semi-foods. Menu labeling is throwing a thimbleful of water at a house fire and it's dismaying to see someone who claims to be concerned with the problem wasting time advocating such a pitiful idea.

Posted by: Caliwhornia | April 21, 2010 12:48 PM | Report abuse

i got it right, as well, but i would like to note - that the reason i did get it right is because i do cook at home a lot, and as such have cooked most of these dishes, or something similar. so i have a good sense of what goes in to them and whether they are high calorie or not. the stew is coming in the lowest because it does not have much, if any, additional oil added to it.

but then, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that people who have the time/resources/inclination to cook at home making better food choices, where people who don't, well, don't.

hence: the importance of labelling.

Posted by: trishka_cvo | April 21, 2010 1:16 PM | Report abuse

Ezra is right, calori information on the menus helps people to steer clear of the most diet busting items.
Since 67% of the Americans are overweight or obese, I suggest that after the illegal aliens have been deported or have self-deported courtesy of the Obama administration, unemployed Americans should be bused to Florida, California and wherever needed to pick oranges, lettuce etc and to do other farm work. The argument is that there are no jobs Americans won't do and hard labor will do fat Americans good and we will be able to reduce medical spending drastically. Obesity is a leading cause for many costly illnesses, such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease.

Posted by: mehuwss | April 21, 2010 1:44 PM | Report abuse

Off topic, but I cringe every time a restaurant uses the term "jambalaya" to describe seafood+sauce served over rice or pasta. The name is simply incorrect. Might as well call it "gumbo" or "ice cream."

Posted by: claytex | April 21, 2010 3:39 PM | Report abuse


Didn't you run a post on this topic previously on studies which suggested people don't actually eat fewer calories if the caloric information is posted? Or did that only apply to fast food?

I agree with previous posters that if you're trying to lose weight, don't go to places that serve food which makes it difficult to lose weight. If you aren't trying to lose weight, menu information probably isn't going to change your eating habits in any case.

Posted by: justin84 | April 21, 2010 5:18 PM | Report abuse

"I agree with previous posters that if you're trying to lose weight, don't go to places that serve food which makes it difficult to lose weight. If you aren't trying to lose weight, menu information probably isn't going to change your eating habits in any case."

I live in a state that has long required posting this information. I have never been overweight, but I always find the information interesting and sometimes very surprising, and it often influences what I choose to eat. Many of my friends share my own experience (that seeing the calorie number does influence menu selections, or that when they go ahead and choose a high calorie item, they will make a point to have their next meal be low calorie to help balance their intake).

It may sound good to some to say that people who need to lose weight should not eat out, and that people who are not trying to lose weight will not pay any attention to nutritional information, but I have found that in the real world neither is true.

It is astonishing to me that anyone would bristle at a simple requirement to provide basic nutritional information to consumers. You'd really rather NOT know? Would you prefer that we do away with ingredient information on grocery item labels too?

Posted by: Patrick_M | April 21, 2010 8:00 PM | Report abuse

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