Calorie counts don’t change most people’s dining-out habits, experts say

Oh, calories. There are so many of you at the Cheesecake Factory.

The Firecracker Salmon appetizer, rolled in spinach, deep-fried in a crisp wrapper, served with sweet hot chili sauce: 660 calories. The Orange Chicken, another deep-fryer visitor, soaked in spicy orange sauce: 1,890 calories.

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?”

The regulations, to be enforced by the Food and Drug Administration, have the backing of powerful legislators in Congress who have been pushed by advocacy groups, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a co-sponsor of the federal labeling effort, said, “In the same way that nutrition labels on packaged foods allow consumers to see exactly what they’re eating and drinking, calorie counts and other information will provide Americans with important information about the food they order when they’re out to eat.”

Distant consequences

You don’t need a pile of studies to tell you that people do not always do what is in their best interest. If humans were a fully rational species capable of using obvious information for obvious benefits, then millions of people every year would not keep forgetting to sign up for their 401(k) plans, nor would they eat an entire bag of Doritos when the label says the bag contains three servings.

“Consumers really should be using this information because it can be helpful to them,” said Lisa Harnack, a nutritionist at the University of Minnesota. After completing a study that showed most eaters did not operate as rationally as she expected, Harnack was heartsick. “I was optimistic we would find that people would make different choices based on having more information.”

In New York, the first big city to adopt menu labeling, NYU researchers studied the eating choices of low-income fast-food diners, focusing on those who saw the labels. “Even those who indicated that the calorie information influenced their food choices did not actually purchase fewer calories,” the study says.

Research in a fast-food restaurant in King County, Wash., where calorie labeling is also law, found similar results. The stated finding was grim: “Mandatory menu labeling did not promote healthier food-purchasing behavior.”

Another recent study shows what really worked was imposing a higher price — by way of a tax — on big-calorie items.

Loewenstein, in his editorial, cited just one “rigorous” study showing a positive effect: at Starbucks stores in New York City, where diners seeing calorie information reduced their intake — but only for food, not beverages. Researchers consider that result a bit of an outlier, theorizing that Starbucks consumers are more sensitive to nutritional information. “I’m sure the average BMI at Cheesecake Factory or McDonald’s is a lot larger than at Starbucks,” Loewenstein said, only half-joking.

Experts say that for most diners, the issue is not about having information but about lacking self-control. Behavioral economists have for years zeroed in on a logical hiccup: We are unable to balance short-term gains with long-term costs. Many humans are simply really, really impatient. With eating out, the gains are immediate (yummy giant burrito!) and the costs are delayed (staggering bills for heart disease!).

“The long-term consequences are totally intangible,” Loewenstein said. “Eating has that in common with cigarettes: One cigarette is not going to kill you, and one big meal is not going to kill you. But the difference is, you need to eat to survive. So there’s an easy rule for the cigarette problem: Stop. There is no easy rule for eating. We must eat.”

Dining out

In decades past, eating out was a treat — something couples or families did on Sundays or for a special occasion. It conveyed a sort of permission to consume too much food, nutritionists say. Today, eating out is a regular part of our diet, with more than one-third of total calories consumed at restaurants. What’s more, the plates are larger and the food is cheaper.

“People still think it’s a treat when they go out for a meal,” said Margaret Wootan, a nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest and a key proponent of menu labeling. “We expect that when we eat out it will not be like when we eat at home. People naturally eat bigger portions when someone else is doing the cooking. But it’s not a treat to eat out. It’s a very regular part of our diet.”

And that includes fast-food meals, which often replace the more time-consuming sit-down meals at places like the Cheesecake Factory. At a McDonald’s in Rockville on a recent day, nearly every table was full. Being consumed: Big Macs (540 calories). Quarter Pounders (510). Large fries (500). A few salads, here and there. A few lower-calorie Snack Wraps.

Rick Branch, 52, stopped in for a quick lunch. Out of several diners interviewed, he was the only one who reported being influenced by the calorie count. He ordered a chicken Snack Wrap, staying below 300 calories. He felt positive about his order. He was being good. Asked when he started paying close attention to calories and nutrition data, Branch said, “More so since the heart attack.”

Michael Rosenwald is a reporter on the Post's local enterprise team. He writes about the intersection of technology, business and culture.
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