How Much Do Calories Count?

BY David Katz, M.D,
Director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center

I am a proponent of calorie labeling, because I think having fundamental information is better than not having it — and because I think such information may confer educational value even when it doesn’t directly shift behavior. But that said, I am not at all surprised by the results of this study. I never thought posting calories would have much influence on food selection by kids, or adults.

The most fundamental of my reasons is that most of us don’t eat to fill a calorie quota; we eat to feel satisfied. A tally of the calories in a given menu item does not change whether or not that item satisfies you. If it doesn’t, you may have to eat two.

A second reason why calorie posting may not matter much is related. If the quality of the foods selected doesn’t change, the easiest way to reduce calories is to reduce portion size. But that simply means… eating less, which sounds a lot like dieting. We know how people tend to feel about that.

Yet another issue is that while calories on display may change awareness, and even attitude about food choice (as in: “I’m going to order what I want, but darn- it sure has a lot of calories and I wish it had fewer!”)- it may simply not be enough to change behavior. The fact that calorie posting does not change selections does not necessarily mean it is useless! Maybe it is a necessary, but not sufficient step to get all the way to meaningful change in food choice, diet quality, weight, and health. Maybe it is useful — just not a slam dunk.

But since I do have reservations about the utility of calorie counts on display for a variety of reasons, I tend to favor an alternative. An equally efficient, clutter-free display of overall nutritional quality. In fact, using a 1-100 scale, the higher the number, the more nutritious the dish- such a display would require less space on a menu board than calories. And convey a lot more information.