Forgive me, Bloomberg, for I have binged

The calorie info in NY restaurants may not have trimmed many waistlines, but it has induced Catholic levels of guilt about eating.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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As a young Catholic boy, a visit to church always meant seeing Our Lord and Saviour above the altar, nailed to a cross. He died for us, and we were meant to feel guilty about that every time we walked up to receive communion. There’s something of that make-’em-feel-bad thinking behind the idea of putting calorie counts on fast-food menus, too, making us feel guilty as we step up to receive lunch. That probably makes New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, the pope of healthy living.

New York’s calorie-counting regulations have now received a substantial review, published today in the British Medical Journal. The press release is clear: researchers found ‘a small but positive impact from a law introduced in 2008 in New York requiring chain restaurants with 15 or more branches nationally to provide calorie information on menus and menu boards in the city’. Overall, 15 per cent of those surveyed in 2009 said they had used the calorie information displayed to guide their food choices.

The effect was to reduce calorie intake, a little. The study says: ‘Customers who reported using the calorie information after regulation purchased 106 fewer calories, on average, compared with customers who didn’t see or didn’t use the information.’ The biggest differences were at hamburger chains where the calorie-counters consumed 130 fewer calories compared to those who made their choices regardless of calories. The impact was biggest on women (18 per cent of women used the information compared to 13 per cent of men), and on people in wealthier neighbourhoods (19 per cent of diners used the information there compared to 12 per cent in the poorest districts).

In other words, 85 per cent of people ignored the information altogether. Those who did pay attention to the calorie counts bought food that contained about 100 calories less energy. Given the usual crude equation of calories to body weight – a pound of pure fat contains about 4,000 calories – then after 40 visits to the takeaway, the people who were most attuned to the calorie information would have lost a single, solitary pound of fat.

In real life, there are all sorts of confounding factors. For starters, the simple assumption that every additional calorie you don’t burn off goes straight to your waistline is almost certainly nonsense. Moreover, what happens if you eat less at the fast-food joint only to feel peckish later on? A quick chocolate bar or a biscuit – even a piece of fruit – would be enough to wipe out all the ‘good work’ you’d done by being so disciplined in the sight of all those scary calorie numbers.

Taking into account that most people didn’t use the calorie information, that calorie consumption went up at some fast-food chains that were pushing bigger portions and down at other chains, particularly ones that introduced low-calorie options, shows that the net effect of the calorie regulations was zilch. The report states: ‘Overall, there was no change in mean energy content of lunchtime purchases from fast food chains after the introduction of calorie information for all menu items.’

The study should be good news for the restaurant industry, which will be comforted to know that they were able to flog low-calorie options to their customers. That’s less food for more money. No wonder that UK fast-food chains seem open to introducing such calorie information ‘voluntarily’ (that is, after lengthy government nagging but without actually being forced to by law).

But the study should be a major disappointment for health experts and campaigners. At best, these calorie labels have had a limited effect on the kind of people who are already more likely than most to fret about their weight. No one else changed their eating habits.

However, those plucky guardians of our waistlines can always see a silver lining on the cloud. A Department of Health spokesperson for England told the BBC: ‘This is a great example of how calorie labelling can influence the choices people make and lead to a healthier diet.’ Beatrice Brooke of the British Heart Foundation, also commented to the BBC: ‘The New York research shows us just how valuable calorie labelling in fast-food restaurants can be.’ Clearly, it’s not just fast-food fans who can wilfully ignore the figures displayed prominently in front of them.

Instead, the conclusion is that we need more labelling, particularly in other places. The study authors write: ‘If the proportion of calorie-aware consumers were raised through education, prominent labelling of energy content of groceries, or other public campaigns to complement the regulation, it is possible that the proportion of customers using calorie information effectively might also increase. Likewise, as the new national calorie-labelling regulation is implemented, we expect that there will be additional pressures on chain restaurants to offer and promote lower calorie items.’

In Catholic terms, that means more crucifixes, more prominently displayed, with education campaigns constantly reminding us about what those crucifixes represent. It means swimming in a veritable sea of guilt-inducing messages about how we should constantly constrain our eating habits. Even if we don’t automatically act on those messages, even if they are so ubiquitous that we barely even notice them, they act to generate a chronic state of anxiety about food.

The ‘politics of fear’ is often, and rightly, discussed in relation to terrorism. Governments and officials hype up terrorist threats in order to justify greater control over our lives. The politics of fear is rarely if ever mentioned in relation to health, but it is just as pernicious in its desire to control our personal habits. These nudges and nags about food are also every bit as useless at preserving our health as the culture of surveillance and censorship is in preserving our security.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. His book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, will be published in October. (Order this book from Amazon (UK). Read his blog here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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