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

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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

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