If you’ve heard a tour pass by the front of Judd Hall, you’ve probably heard that the calorie was first quantified in the basement of that building by the University’s own Professor of Chemistry Wilbur Olin Atwater near the turn of the 20th Century. Atwater was an influential chemist and early dietitian.
Fast forward over 100 years, and you’ll find a mandate in the Affordable Care Act for calorie counts on the menus in big restaurant chains. This measure has received support from nutrition activists and backlash from many others, especially businesses that oppose increased government involvement.
The Importance of Informed Decisions
By Gilad Lipman, Contributing Writer
For me, late-night runs to McDonald’s and Wendy’s have always been a fun and enjoyable way to fill up my stomach with crispy chicken nuggets or salted French fries. The meal sits well until the next morning, when I step on the scale.
If only I had just sucked it up and went to bed. One turn of the head and I would have seen the ripe, yellow banana sitting on the kitchen table. That said, I’m in a relatively good position to change my habits: I know how many grams of fat I ingested last evening.
There is a strong push in the United States to improve the population’s overall understanding of nutrition. The mandate for fast-food chains to post the number of calories on menus and drive-thru windows will only help consumers make healthy choices. Moreover, the law enacted by Congress will help to slow down the rampant rate of obesity in our country.
People need to be informed about unhealthy products so that they can make proper decisions on what to eat and what not to eat. Many people probably do not know that a Big Mac, large fries, and large Coke (30 ounces) amount to just over 1300 calories. This is almost 75 percent of the recommended number of calories consumed during the whole day for the average person. Perhaps seeing the number of calories next to a TRIPLE WHOPPER® or a Baconator will cause the number of salads purchased to rise.
This legislation works because it finds a way to help average Americans improve their diets without restricting them from certain choices. Showing the number of calories on the menu doesn’t forbid a person from eating at Burger King. People need to know that they can still eat fast food; they should just consider limiting how often they do it.
Consumers do not have to take an all-or-nothing approach to fast food. An order of small fries with five chicken nuggets will not necessarily cause obesity; the naïveté of not accepting the fast food industry for what it truly is will. Moderation, balance, and sound advice will lead people to start making smarter dietary decisions.
Providing a visual of the number of calories may help people make better choices, but it will not destroy the fast food industry. Hopefully these calorie counts will encourage people to eat the high calorie fare on fast food menus less frequently.
The Right to Know
By Erica DeMichiel, Contributing Writer
The act of eating is a very personal experience. But nothing could be more impersonal than not knowing what’s in our food.
While several studies have suggested that mandatory calorie counts in fast food restaurants do not change the eating habits of patrons, there is no reason to do away with the program. Though the law might not have a noticeable impact on decision making, it will still have a positive impact on society as a whole.
In a 2013 study performed by the British Medical Journal group, researchers investigated the American ability to gauge calorie intake at a variety of national fast food chains. Results indicated that participants severely underestimated how many calories they consumed over the course of data collection. They also discovered that as meal size increased, so did the degree of calorie misperception. In fact, one fourth of the study participants were off by as much as 500 calories when asked about the nutritional content of a specific meal.
This is further proof that we have no idea what we’re eating, and guessing is often unreliable and inaccurate. With over one third of our nation considered obese, according to the Center for Disease Control, these are guesses we simply cannot afford to make.
One could even argue that by granting access to nutritional information, big fast food chains build trust with their customers by establishing a “no secrets” business approach. By advertising calorie counts, these companies are showing that they have nothing to hide from those who are purchasing their products. After all, the release of documentaries like “Super Size Me” and “Food, Inc.” left these chains starved for good publicity. Maybe calorie disclosure will even give them a nudge towards the development of lower-calorie items.
Another possible argument against the use of calorie counts is that the measurements are often incorrect. However, a 2011 Tufts University study found that, on average, restaurants with calorie counts are accurate, in spite of some discrepancies.
In a society of mass production and artificial engineering, it’s easy to become out of touch with what exactly we’re consuming. But as American citizens, it’s important for us to safeguard our right to know.
Against Calorie Posting Laws
By Emma Davis, Contributing Writer
As someone who has struggled with body image in the past, there’s nothing I like less than being told what or how much to eat. Though I accept the rationale behind the endless nutritional facts provided on the back of processed food, I prefer to maintain a healthy diet through the idea of balanced food groups rather than limiting myself to the mandated 2,000 calories per day. So it came as an unpleasant surprise when some of my favorite chains like Starbucks and Au Bon Pain began posting the number of calories in every item on their menus, making it nearly impossible to avoid the neurotic calorie-counting that I despise.
One reason I feel so strongly about these laws is that they seem to be preaching to the choir, so to speak, by promoting weight consciousness among those already prone to it without offering effective alternatives for those who are less aware. Among young women, for example, for whom ordering a brownie or other more filling menu items is often portrayed as an indulgence at best, a transgression at worst, these postings could further contribute to the societal pressure to choose a lower-calorie item and increase their guilt over having even considered a more “fattening” option.
Additionally, the calorie postings may promote a skewed calories-per-dollar mentality, according to a January 2011 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. This mentality would in turn lead those of lower socio-economic status to choose cheaper, higher-calorie items, which would encourage, rather than deter, a diet of fatty, processed foods.
So how successful are these laws, once put into practice? Not very, as current research shows. Two studies in 2011 from the British Medical Journal and the Health Affairs website note that only one in six or one in four subjects, respectively, made use of the posted information. Moreover, a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in February 2011 reported that the postings actually increased the caloric intake of subjects who described themselves as on a diet.
The question remains, therefore, as to why New York and other states are continuing to fuel weight stigma while only reforming the food industry itself on a superficial level. To borrow a favorite quote of mine from Gloria Steinem, “If the shoe doesn’t fit, must we change the foot?” Rather than target consumers, whose decisions about food are already overcomplicated by financial and societal concerns, the government should target fast food chains whose very menus and approaches to advertising have helped to spark the obesity epidemic in the United States. And in the meantime, the government can leave the rest of us to eat in peace.