As Part of New Healthcare Law, Calorie Counts Go Nationwide

We’ve blogged a few times about the effect of calorie-count postings in restaurants in New York City – the extra information is valuable, but its efficacy in changing eating habits may be minimal among the people most likely to need a change. That said, the New York movement is now going national as part of the new healthcare law, which requires restaurant chains with 20 or more outlets to post calorie information at all their restaurants.

This Wall Street Journal article offers a good summary, including two quotes which seem to aptly reflect the optimistic and realistic views of the calorie-count measure. The optimistic view is courtesy of Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest:

“People could cut hundreds, thousands, of calories from their diet.”

And the realistic view is from Cathy Nonas, director of physical activity and nutrition at New York’s health department:

“Calorie posting in and of itself is not going to change obesity per se, but it’s all of these kinds of layering opportunities that we’re doing for public health all across the country that are going to make the difference.”

If I had to place a bet, I’d side with Nonas’s view for one simple reason: human behavior change – especially when it goes against our self-interest – is generally much, much harder that we think. Unless a nudge has a little bit of a shove attached (and calorie counts do not), most people will remain blissfully unmoved.

(Related: Freakonomics Radio, Fat Edition: Is the Obesity Epidemic for Real?)


As an obese person myself, I know and expect that when I eat out I will consume a larger amount of calories. While having nutirion information may not cause me to suddenly abandon unhealthy foods, it has certainly allowed me to make more educated choices. Most of the salads I was previously eating while attempting to eat better have more calories than the guilty pleasures I was sacrificing!


Human behaviour is hard to change when it goes against our self interest, but reducing calorie intake for most Western people is in our interest.

I'm not overweight, but I have no idea how many calories are in some restaurant foods, and I would quite like to know!


Well, at the very least it will be a lot easier to point out that the double quarter pounder meal with fries and a coke that your friend just ordered for lunch has 1550 calories, or over three quarters of your whole days worth of calories (for a 2000 calorie recommended intake).

Megan W.

My hope is that the information will provide a section on the menu that has competitive caloric information in the same way many fast food chains have a dollar menu. It would be nice to walk into a fast food joint and order off the "100 calorie menu".

Joe in Jersey

Unless calorie counts are going to hurt in someway (and the cost of posting them is probably negligible) they are not a bad idea. If 1 person on one day chooses a meal with less calories it has had an effect. I wonder if the restaurants in NY, once they saw their calories posted, added more low calorie choices to balance their menus?


Menu labeling is also important because will encourage restuarants to reformulate their products before the new menu boards go up.


Megan W.-
I think you are already seeing that with Applebee's 550 calorie menu.


I don't think people will order the lowest-calorie items because they're the lowest calorie items, but it may act as a tie-breaker, or encourage people not to enhance their orders (adding bacon adds how many calories??!!). So I'd expect many people to take in modestly fewer calories as a result

Isabel WGBH

The passage of the healthcare reform bill and black voices in the media are the topics of discussion on the PBS show Basic Black, which you can watch TONIGHT at 7:30 p.m EST LIVE at or on channel 2 in Boston. You can also participate in a live chat at starting at 4 pm.

chris markl

the nudge might not be for consumers but instead for companies. they now have an additional incentive to make fast food heathlier.


I think the key here is guilt. When you order something unhealthy you know its somewhat unhealthy. When you order it with the calorie count right next to it then you know exactly how unhealthy it is. Basically a veil of ignorance is lifted and you are left with the shocking truth which plays to your guilt when ordering it. If you don't have a reaction to guilt, or just do not feel guilty that often then this law will have very little effect on you.

Eileen Wyatt

I'm underweight, and it's partly because meals that look caloric and filling to me turn out to contain only 350 calories, and next thing I know, the entire day's intake is under 1,200 calories. Bring on the calorie information!


NPR ran a blurb the other day that mentioned that Starbucks has switched to using 2% milk instead of whole in their lattes (frapachinos? I forget) because they didn't want to post the higher number.

I for one will order what looks tasty since I eat out so rarely. If huge portions and fatty ingredients are scaled back because of embarrassing calorie counts all the better for me.

Jackie O

I am a FAN of this! I am trying to count calories and make better choices, but it is very difficult... Perhaps next we can standardize portion sizes =)


Gah! This was the kind of idiotic stuff I was worried about with this 1000+ page bill. People feel like they're doing something but it really does nothing. It's true that your weight gain (loss) is the difference between what you eat and what you burn.

W = Ein - Eout

That's thermodynamics, and you can't get around that. It's also true that 1 pound of fat is about 3500 calories.

The trouble comes when people thing that Ein and Eout are uncorrelated. They say things like eat one fewer cookie (100 calories) a day and in a month you'll lose a pound. Or they'll go the other way and say take the stairs instead of the elevator and you'll slowly lose weight without thinking about it. Everyone (including the supporters of this law) think that it's just simple counting of calories. But it's not.

Your body has excellent feedback mechanisms that control everything. One of those feedback mechanisms controls your hunger and exercising. If you skip that 100 calorie cookie, your body will make you slow down and save those 100 calories elsewhere. Or if you take the stairs you'll be hungrier at dinner and eat extra. These are small changes that you'll never notice.

What's also interesting is that WHAT you eat matters so much more than HOW MUCH you eat. When you have of carbs/sugars/grains, your body just stores them, so basically all of the food you eat goes to Ein. But if you have lots of fat and protein, your body burns that and basically that goes in Eout.

This really isn't the place for a long discussion on this, but what I really want to point out was that just posting calorie counts won't do anything at all, in fact it could have the reverse effect where people eat low-calorie, high-carbohydrate meals which gets turned into body fat versus people eating high-calorie low-carbohydrate meals which turns into energy.



I'm not overweight. I don't count calories. I just try to eat high quality meals that are satisfying and taste good. If it takes the most caloric dairy cream around to have them done, I'm all for it.
I fear that, as it typically happens here in America, for the sake of counting calories we'll end up having dishes that taste even worse than the way they taste now. After all, the problem in America is not of calories per ounce, the problem in America is the number of pounds that people ingest.
Improve the quality of the food and reduce the dish sizes and eating would improve. This isn't a problem that regulation will solve, unless they start putting people in jail for eating too much, This is purely a question of bad personal choices and above all *lack of good taste for food*.

Long Island Lawyer

Of course if we LIMIT THE CALORIES a person can purchase it will make a difference.
or if we TAX excessive calories, or supersize portions this will encourage the purchase of healthy items and portions


I'm looking forward to this. We don't eat at chain restaurants very often, but I hope that the calorie counts will result in my husband eating less and myself eating more (and thus not being nauseous from hunger three hours later; it's a chemotherapy problem).

Given a choice, though, I'd have them post the number of official-size servings of vegetables every dish.

Bill McGonigle

Can I just take the safe position that more accurate market information will lead to better purchasing decisions?

Look, I didn't even mention food.

Titus Pullo

When do Mike Bllomberg and company start breaking down doors and start ordering people to do 50 pushups and run 5 miles?