Calorie labelling in restaurants and fast food joints is a thoroughly bad idea

I have a friend who until recently managed a hotel in the West of England. The restaurant at the hotel is Michelin-starred. My friend talked with me some months ago about calls for restaurants to post the calorie-counts of meals on the menu. He’s not keen on the idea, telling me (I paraphrase): “People don’t eat in Michelin-starred restaurants to count calories.” He’s right, of course, but there are other reasons why this practice, all the rage now in New York, is unlikely to do much good. Paradoxically, there is some evidence that it might actually cause harm.

The issues regarding calorie posting in restaurants and fast food joints was well discussed recently in an article that appeared in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition [1]. It describes how the introduction of calorie posting in New York was preceded by a study which found that individuals who noticed the calorie counts of food in a Subway ‘restaurant’ (Subway is, essentially, a sandwich shop), they ate bout 50 calories less than those who had not noticed the calorie postings. But, as the article points out, this does not necessarily mean that posting calories leads to lower consumption. It might be, for example, that ‘calorie-conscious’ people look for calorie counts and were going to choose lower calorie options anyway.

Making calorie posting compulsory in New York has allowed many more studies to be done on the effect of this practice. The result? Most studies show no effect, and when calorie intakes have fallen, the effect has generally been ‘miniscule’. More worrying yet, is the fact that some studies have found that posting calorie counts has led to an increase in consumption. In one study, for instance, labeling led to an increase in calorie consumption in those reporting that they were on a diet! [2].

The author of the piece in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition speculates on how posting calorie contents of food might actually increase caloric intake.

For example, some individual might naturally over-estimate the calorie contents of foods. Knowing the real (and lower) calorie content might therefore cause them to eat more of it.

Also, some individuals may see similarly priced but higher calorie options as providing better value for money.

The author draws our attention to the fact that calorie-obsessiveness might add to the tendency for some to exhibit ‘irrational, even neurotic, patterns of [eating] behavior’, and that ‘Calorie labeling can potentially amplify such neuroticism, converting eating from a necessary and pleasurable activity to one fraught with anxiety and internal conflict.’

To my mind, though, calorie labeling is a huge retrograde step in that it puts the emphasis on the (calorific) quantity of food as being important, over it’s quality. It reinforces the ideas that all calories have the same weight and health effects in the body (they don’t), and that something low in calories in somehow inherently better than something more calorific.

One disastrous consequence of this obsession with calories has been a general eschewing of fat in favour of carbohydrates. But carbohydrates drive insulin secretion which, among other things, drives deposition of fat in the fat cells. They can also, by promoting inflammation and perhaps other mechanisms, disrupt the function of the hormone leptin, leading to suppression of the metabolism and heightened hunger. Carbohydrate rich foods are not particularly satisfying either, particularly if they lead to drops in blood sugar some time later (which they often do) which can induce ‘false’ hunger and a craving for sweet or starchy foods.

Focus on calories is, if anything, counter-productive for weight control. It’s clearly not part of the solution to the obesity epidemic, despite what some policy-makers like to think.


1. Loewenstein G. Confronting reality: pitfalls of calorie posting. Am J Clin Nutr 2011;93:679–80

2. Downs JS, et al. Strategies for promoting healthier food choices. Am Econ Rev 2009;99:159–64

12 Responses to Calorie labelling in restaurants and fast food joints is a thoroughly bad idea

  1. Kevin eakins 4 November 2011 at 7:53 pm #

    I concur entirely with you. It will be a sorry day when Europe sees the same arbitrary figures listed on restaurant menus. It speaks more to obsession than care for anyone’s welfare and completely misses the point that you make so well that calories are not and never have been equal between different foods. Food which has no real nutional value is still rubbish not matter how few calories it contains.

  2. Michele Kingston 4 November 2011 at 7:58 pm #

    I agree Dr Briffa. I never advise my weight loss clients to count calories. Something low in calories does not mean it is healthy, likewise something high in calories isn’t necessarily bad for you. Counting calories leads to obsessional behaviour about the wrong element of food. People should be interested in the vitamin and mineral content and the sugar content rather than the calories. I would, however, love it if restaurants had to list their ingredients so people could avoid gluten, dairy or any other possible allergenic ingredients with ease. It is so strange that it would even be considered here if it hasn’t worked in New York, but I guess common sense rarely comes into it.

  3. Bob 4 November 2011 at 9:06 pm #

    Although I believe that government should keep its nose out of private businesses, I would more likely go to a restaurant if it listed the ingredients in all of its foods. Therefore, I could avoid grains, sugar and industrialized seed oils. It should be up to the restaurant whether or not to list ingredients to attract my money.

  4. Zoe 4 November 2011 at 11:09 pm #

    This is in line with the stupidity of the “fat tax” the government was considering. It is not fat that makes people fat, it is refined carbohydrates and sugar. As a long term fatty, on the way down, I started a blog to monitor how I feel depending on what I eat. And I use Weight Watchers to track points. If I eat healthily,and have some high fat foods, such as cheese, I feel good and lose weight even if I am above my daily allowance. But if I eat lots of carbs, i feel dreadful and do not lose as much, even though I am hardly over points. So counting calories will not help.

  5. Tony K 5 November 2011 at 12:59 am #

    It’s interesting. I agree with everything in your post except your headline.

    I don’t know what effect posting calories will have, but I am totally for transparency and informative labels.

    I feel the same way on GMO products. They absolutely should be labeled and if food manufacturers don’t want to, they should be forced to label them.

    Only then can consumers make informed choices. I’m not sure what I can do to convince people that it’s more than CICO, but at least let people apply their own paradigm and take charge of their own health–right or wrong.

  6. Richard David Feinman 5 November 2011 at 6:13 pm #

    I agree with Tony K. Great post but I don’t know about “thoroughly.” They’re going to do it whether it makes sense or not. We may be able to help by giving some guidelines on how to deduct carb calories. (I know, I’m naive about educating everybody). If you have to eat breakfast at McDonald’s — for example, if it’s the only place near the grocery store that your wife insists she must shop at right now — the egg sausage on biscuit is pretty good and if you throw away the biscuit (or if you take only one bite because you are the kind of guy who has to taste everything that passes in front of their face), you save almost all the carbs and a lot of calories. Don’t have figures in front of me but they are published and useful.

    One of the interesting things was the food (mostly pastries) at Starbucks. I am not as good as a lot of nutritionists who have more experience but I am pretty good at sizing up calories. I avoid looking at the answer and try to guess how many calories for each item on display. On the pastries, I tend to consistently undercut by about 30 %. I do much better on the regular stuff, sandwiches, etc. I think that tells you something.

  7. Chris 5 November 2011 at 9:22 pm #

    I entirely agree, Dr Briffa, with your sentiment and your headline. Your summation is excellent and from that a quote springs to mind. The quote is commonly attributed to Albert Einstein but I gather the rightful origin may be contended.

    “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

    Nature ought to have instilled in us some ability to self-regulate appetite. I think very probably, by degree, nature has. On an evolutionary scale the ability to count and disclose calories is a very recent phenomenon. Are rising rates of obesity a consequence, not so much of wilfully eating too much, but of a decline in ability to ‘sense’ when one has consumed enough? If it is suggested that disruption to hormonal balance associated with insulin from consuming too many calories from the denser starchy carbohydrates is disruptive to the self-control of appetite then I would agree; as the proposition sits well with my experience.

    ‘Wisdom’ has it that fats contain 9 cals/g and starches and proteins 4 cals/g. Purely from a ‘quantitative’ viewpoint fats must make us fat. But this purely quantitative viewpoint is overly simplistic, and it lacks any ‘ qualitative’ regard for the biochemical processes involved in fat deposition. The quantitative view is a ‘proxy’ outlook on what is actually going on. The ‘proxy’ outlook does not deserve the unquestioning trust ‘wisdom’ invests in it.

    Proxy measures can be helpful but they can also have their limits and matters can go very mush awry if those who apply and utilise proxy do not recognise the limits of usefulness. The presence and availability of quantitative proxy measures can result in counter-productive results; especially so if their use distracts the mind from qualitative considerations. Results can be highly deleterious. Examples in mind include GDP, lipoprotein counts as a proxy for measurement of ‘cholesterol’, and an issue connected with my work. The world would be a far better place if more people could recognise a ‘proxy’ for what it is and knew its limits. The ability distinguishes the wise, and there are not many.

  8. PeggyC 6 November 2011 at 1:26 am #

    I agree with everything you said. Calorie counts are distracting to me. I was in a restaurant the other night that listed calories on its menu. I don’t feel it’s helpful as I do not care about calories. Instead, when I should have been considering what to order I found myself wondering things like “how could that salad be over 1000 calories?” I don’t care if they provide no labels at all, but ingredients would be a lot more helpful than calories!
    And yes, Chris, I believe nature did instill in us the ability to self regulate calories–but it requires eating a reasonable amount of protein and fat. (Carbs work against that.) Why on earth would we be the only animal that can’t? And why are we the only country in which people feel the need to have that information? It’s all so ridiculous.

  9. helen 8 November 2011 at 10:03 pm #

    the whole world has become a nanny state what is it with government bodies these days. Not content to do their jobs and run the public services like they should. No they have to become the food police and every other thing they have been told to think is good for us. Health costs are going up because of this misguided interference the whole lets listen to science but only the science we agree makes us money is rubbish. When are we all going to speak up and say enough!!

  10. LV 10 November 2011 at 12:43 pm #

    Another way calorie counts are counterproductive for a lot of people is that they seem to look at each ‘reduced calorie’ item as somehow isolated from everything else they eat in a day. My workmates are au fait with the calorie content of everything – they’ll come back to the office crowing about their 350 calorie lunch, then through the afternoon chow down on such so-called treats as chocolate covered rice cakes (‘only 95 calories each!’) and lord knows what else (‘do you know there’s only 73.5 calories in each custard cream?’). By the end of the day they’ll have racked up far more calories than the person who had a big slab of cheese for lunch.

  11. Conner 5 January 2012 at 10:26 am #

    To quote my favourite “diet expert” Marjorie Dawes (“Fat Fighters” leader on Little Britain): “It’s half the calories, so you can eat twice as much!”


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