Roger Johnson, a ravenous 39-year-old federal worker from Hyattsville, ordered both.
Quick gastric calculation: That’s far more calories than any sane nutritionist would recommend for one meal. The calories were not secret, hidden away on the restaurant’s Web site. They were listed on the menu, next to the prices, impossible to miss.
“Yeah, I saw them,” Johnson, a man of medium build, said somewhat sheepishly on his way out. “I guess I’ll have to work out or something later.” Then he had second thoughts. “Or maybe I’ll cheat a little today.” He let out a hearty laugh.
Like other lunchers at the Cheesecake Factory at White Flint Mall, Johnson saw the calorie counts thanks to a Montgomery County law that went into effect this year mandating that chain restaurants clearly list them. Like many diners, he ignored them.
Evidence is mounting that calorie labels — promoted by some nutritionists and the restaurant industry to help stem the obesity crisis — do not steer most people to lower-calorie foods. Eating habits rarely change, according to several studies. Perversely, some diners see the labels yet consume more calories than usual. People who use the labels often don’t need to. (Meaning: They are thin.)
Questions about the effectiveness of calorie disclosure come as the federal government is finalizing regulations to nationalize labeling in chain restaurants next year as part of a measure tucked into President Obama’s health-care law. Some chain restaurants are tweaking menus in anticipation, offering more low-calorie meals. Yet several high-cal eateries that operate in Montgomery — including the Cheesecake Factory, Chipotle, Five Guys and Red Robin Gourmet Burgers — report no change in dining habits because of the labels.
“Have we seen a big [drop] in sales? No, not at all,” said Todd Stallings, owner of several Five Guys restaurants in Montgomery, which based its rules on the upcoming federal policy. “When people come to Five Guys, they know we are not cooking their french fries in water.”
Some experts question the wisdom of the labeling policies, even if they agree that people have a right to know the caloric content of what they are ingesting. (Recommended daily calorie intake varies based on age, weight, height and activity levels but is generally 2,500 for men and 2,000 for women.)
“There is a great concern among many of the people who study calorie labeling that the policy has moved way beyond the science and that it would be beneficial to slow down,” said George Loewenstein, a behavioral economist at Carnegie Mellon University who studies calorie labeling. In a recent editorial in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, he asked: “Given the lack of evidence that calorie posting reduces calorie intake, why is the enthusiasm for the policy so pervasive?”