Calorie Counts and Health Halos

| 3 min read

Driving back home to Ohio this past weekend, my wife and I stopped at a Chipotle in Maryland at the beginning of our travels. I noticed that the menu was a little bit more crowded than normal. You see, apparently in Maryland, fast food restaurants are required to list their calorie counts next to food items. Today, I saw a couple tweets about an article discussing Shake Shack’s new requirement in New York to list their calorie counts on their menu.

I think these are both great things. The more information that customers can have to make decisions, the better. I’m all for transparency in every way possible and I think this is a good thing. The question I have is… why are we only targeting fast food?

Americans have been bombarded with health information for years telling us how bad fast food is for us. There have been documentaries1, ad campaigns, speeches from politicians, school lessons and even stand-up comedians that have pointed out the unhealthy nature of fast food. I think we collectively have a giant blind spot from this concentration on fast food. We tend to not even think about the benefits or consequences that we encounter in sit down restaurants or even fast-ish food that markets themselves as healthy.

There was a study done by a guy by the name of Brian Wansink that found that people were generally pretty good at estimating the healthiness of the food they were eating when it came to fast food. We guess the caloric content of a McDonald’s burger pretty well. Where people came up consistently wrong was with “nice” restaurants whose names sounded healthy.

He allowed Penn & Teller to film one of these experiments for an episode of their show on Showtime and gave two groups of people the same salad from Taco Bell. The first group was told that the salad was from Taco Bell. They ate it and then answered a brief questionnaire about the salad. The second group was told that the salad was from the “California Garden Café”. They ate the salad and answered the same questions. The calorie count of the salad was 970. The answers from the fast food group all came in right around 900 to 1000. The answers from the Garden Café group were less than half that.

This is the result of what Wansink calls “Health Halos”. Whenever we are sold the idea that the place we’re eating is healthy, we tend to grossly underestimate how unhealthy whatever it is we’re eating actually is.

Why is it that only fast food restaurants are subject to these calorie counts? I’m sure there are some politics behind the scenes. There are also some who claim that there is an element of elitism or classism to the proposals and there may be some degree of truth to that.

I think more likely is that it just sits in our blind spot. We know when we go to Wendy’s that the Baconator is not the best choice we can possibly make, but who would’ve thought that the pasta with organic ingredients and fresh, handmade sauce from a cool spot run by a local chef would be so bad?

I personally love these little psychological things and find them fascinating. But seriously folks, let’s get those calorie counts on all menus.

  1. I suppose in the case of Super Size Me and Forks Over Knives that should be “documentaries”. ↩︎