17 July 2007

more thoughts on calorie counting

Last night I wrote about commercials which "overmathematize" eating.

This morning, in the New York Times, I read the article Calorie Labels May Clarify Options, Not Actions. New York City apparently has a new law requiring calorie counts to be posted in certain restaurants, and other places are considering similar laws.

The argument that various experts are making is that a lot of restaurant food is worse for you than people think. I said yesterday that I believe the human body will naturally behave in such a way as to have people eating the amount they should. Of course it should! Millions of years of evolution can't be wrong.

But there weren't restaurants when evolution did most of its work. And as far as I know, there has been no evolutionary tendency away from eating everything that's put in front of us because we don't know when there will be food again. Different people have differing appetites, which makes me suspect that given enough time living in a society like the one we have right now where high-calorie food is readily available, we'll evolve to not want more than the amount of food we need to live. But that's only true given enough time. Evolution is slow.

So maybe here the posting of calorie counts is a good idea.


But then say that someone knows they "should" be eating 2000 calories a day, given their current weight, age, gender, and lifestyle, in order to maintain that current weight. And they get to a restaurant for lunch and they see the 400-calorie burger, the 300-calorie fries, and the 200-calorie soda. (I'm making these numbers deliberately low, by the way.) None of those numbers are that large compared to 2000, so they think it's okay. But those numbers add up to 900, which is nearly half of 2000. Does this person know they're eating nearly half the number of calories they need?

In short, I suspect that though well-intended, the usefulness of this will be thwarted by the fact that a substantial number of Americans can't do basic arithmetic on three-digit numbers. (This probably explains the reason why the Weight Watchers "points" scheme is so popular -- it lowers the size of the numbers people have to keep track of.)

I believe this also explains a lot of the current state of the housing market -- people signed up for loans without realizing that the advertised payment wasn't even going to cover the interest -- but that's a different story.


Unknown said...

Note that your numbers are low. Even if people don't realize that's 900 calories, they'll certainly notice when one entree is more than 1000 calories. Also, even if most people don't use the information, some people will, and it will help keep restaurants accountable.

(I'm glad you point out that people won't naturally eat a reasonable amount of food. Most people will instead eat what would've been a reasonable amount of food if food was generally scarce and they were getting large amounts of exercise.)

frank said...

I think we might encounter the problem for most people that a little bit of information can be worse than no information at all. As you referenced, several 300 calorie foods add up to greater than 2000 very quickly. Plus, who really knows how many calories they burn in an average day?

By the way, does this make the people creating the commercials overmathematicians?