Despite Mayor Bloomberg’s most paternal intentions, posting calorie counts in restaurants does not make anyone eat healthier, according to a Carnegie Mellon study published in the American Journal of Public Health. Looking at 1,121 New York City adults getting lunch at two New York City McDonald’s locations, researchers found that diners who were reminded how many calories they should eat daily or per meal— and therefore that Angus Mushroom & Swiss burger is, like, 70 percent of their daily allowance — did not purchase meals with fewer calories than those who were not reminded.
Of course, people getting lunch at McDonald’s, or any of the other chain restaurants required by the health department to post nutritional information, are probably not a very representative population of calorie counters. For me, walking into Wendy’s or Chipotle means I’ve surrendered or committed to eating poorly because I’ve planned poorly and am slightly desperate (in a rush, in a remote location, in a broke way), or am feeling particularly DGAF. If I wanted an apple, I’d get one that wasn’t pre-cut and packaged in a plastic bag petri dish of disease. Either way, there’s an emotional component that overrides my capacity to do calorie math. It’s unfortunate that I have to eat this junk, but knowing exactly how many miles I would have to walk to burn it off, as another city initiative spells out, isn’t going to change the circumstances that drove me there in the first place.
In fact, by that point, I’m probably doing my best not to notice the calorie counts. Both because, like many women I know, I wish I could return to the time when I didn’t already know how many calories are in everything and because, as Casey Neistat reported for the New York Times earlier this year, most nutritional information provided by chain restaurants is meaningfully off. Whatever promise of control or empowerment the numbers are supposed to offer is probably slightly bogus, if not outright maddening.
That’s not to say I think we should do away with nutritional information. Just, if public-health officials want to change habitual overeating, they’d be better served to make sure that McDonald’s isn’t the most convenient and cost-efficient option whenever people are short on time and/or money.