Calorie Logic

(Photo: HD41117)

In a recent column in the New York Times, Jane Brody quotes a nutrition professor lamenting the fact that “restaurants have resisted her suggestion to serve half the amount of food for about a third the price.”  The professor might have thought more about economic behavior. (Even if she had suggested cutting the price to half for one-third the food, it still would not have been good economic analysis. The labor costs of preparing and serving half the food are probably nearly identical to those of serving the full amount.)  

In a competitive industry this means that her proposal would lower average cost per serving by less than half, making it impossible to cover costs if prices are cut by 2/3.  A profit-maximizing monopolist wouldn’t cut price by 2/3 either.  The nutrition professor’s only hope is that restaurants would cut prices this much out of altruism or to set examples for others. I wouldn’t bet on that — and the professor should not have been surprised.


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  1. Steven Gangstead says:

    I would be fine with 1/2 food for 2/3 price. I can tell myself all day to just take half the food home, but when the plate is in front of me my instinct is to lick it clean.

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    • Rosario says:

      I bet that’s the case for most of us. Maybe an alternative would be that the restaurant offers to serve you half and automatically put the other half in a doggie bag? Obviously, you could technically just open the doggie bag and eat it then and there, but the mental compartmentalisation might help with the self-control issues.

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  2. Rich B says:

    Or she should have focused her efforts on a regulation making the publishing of calorie counts or salt/fats/etc on menus compulsory.

    That would make small portion size a potential asset for some restaurants, at least those who cater to a clientele who would suddenly care if they realised they were eating 1500 calories per extra-large burger.

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  3. YX says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  4. BL1Y says:

    I hope this is a mistake and she meant reducing meals by half their size, while reducing prices by only a third. That would give people an appropriately sized meal, for less money, while increasing the restaurant’s profit margin. Win-win-win.

    Some meals, of course, cannot be reduced to half sized portions. You can’t make a half pork chop, or half a chicken breast, or half a New York Strip (you can find smaller versions of each, but that requires stocking extra items and increasing loss from waste).

    But, where items are easily reduced to smaller portions, restaurants often make those small sizes an option. Half-sized salads, a cup of soup instead of a bowl, half a sandwich. And the pricing is typically what you might think. Portion reduced by 1/2, price reduced by 1/3.

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  5. jonathan says:

    It costs more to portion less of some things: if fish or meat has to be recut, that’s labor and may generate some waste. The only incentive to restaurants is to offer small plates for relatively more money. That’s what some places do.

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  6. Jen Z says:

    At what point in time are those who think themselves educated, going to allow people to make their own choices in life?
    “People who pay attention to calorie labels on menus are shocked, for example, to discover that a single cookie contains 700 calories,” Dr. Nestle said. “You may want that cookie, but then you can’t eat anything else. Cookies didn’t used to be this big.”
    THEN DON’T EAT IT!! It’s such a simple thing

    People need to be held accountable for their actions. If you want to eat hot dogs everyday Great!! You want to eat a dozen Krispie Kremes in one sitting Go for it!!
    But when you keel over from a heart attack, have diabetes or can’t fit in one seat on the train you need to say that you made the choice of what you put in your mouth. Own it! And pay for your own health care expenses don’t make mine go up because you choose to not care about yourself.

    The government doesn’t need to regulate anything we need to be able to do the right thing on our own.

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    • Rich B says:

      It’s absolutely not about the government telling people what they can and can’t eat, it’s about letting people make an informed decision. That’s what liberty is (and capitalism, come to think of it): making a decision that benefits you based on the best available information. If one side in a transaction has a lot more information than the other, that’s not an efficient market. Or if there is an education gap where someone doesn’t realise the health-implications of what they’re doing, then regulating restaurants to supply that information is a no-brainer for consumers.

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    • Peter Lange says:

      @Jen, but how can the consumer make an informed choice without _some_ regulation enforcing the availability of data on which to make that choice? Its easy to point to Hot Dogs as junk food, but a lot of things aren’t so obvious. Here in CA restaurants have to have calorie counts on their menus (though half of them still don’t, and half of the ones that do are out of date) but I was shocked to see that some of the “healthy” options like the salads on the menus were frequently as much or more calories than the entrees. But because the CA legislature has made is mandatory for CPK, for example, to have this, I now realize that the dinner salads are still worse off for me than the Kung Pao Speghetti — something I never would have guessed without data.

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      • Jen says:

        I agree – there needs to be some regulation about what information is available to the consumer, and I, too, have been surprised to find that some of the lowest-calorie entrees on Applebee’s menu are the burgers. But there also needs to be some regulation about what kind of education the population receives (i.e., some nutrition needs to be mandated in the elementary school curriculum). The calorie information on those menus doesn’t do a whole lot if the average consumer doesn’t know what do do with them (there are both health literacy and numeracy problems). The obesity/diabetes/heart disease epidemic is largely a product of the lack of education about what constitutes a healthy diet, and about the fact that convenience and processed foods do not constitute a healthy diet.

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    • Jeff says:

      @Jen, it’s not as simple as “if you want to eat hot dogs every day then eat them.” No matter what choice an individual makes, society has to bear the costs. That’s right, if I choose to eat hot dogs every day, even if it is a fully informed choice, then when I keel over from a heart attack the ambulance has to drive me to the hospital. The hospital has to treat me. Guess who pays for it? Not me, I’m broke. You pay for it. And, when I get out, you know what? I’ll keep eating hot dogs. Hey, it’s my right, you said so yourself. And so on and so on. Unless we give hospitals the right to refuse treatment (and I don’t think that we want to go down that road) then we may want to establish some guidelines about what’s healthy and what isn’t. The gov’t gets to establish a speed limit and it gets to establish some minimum standards for cars, trucks, buses, etc. You can’t just go and say that hey, if you want to drive 120 mph in a beat-up jalopy without fenders and crumple zones then you should just be able to do it. Your individual liberty is immense but it is not limitless

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      • Jen Z says:

        @Jeff I agree with you to a point. If we completely follow your thought everything we do would be regulated and that sounds a little to 1984-ish for my tastes. Personable accountability is something this country greatly lacks. ie those who signed loan papers without knowing the terms.
        I’ve worked in the restaurant business for 20 years including those that had menus with what the author is talking about. In five years of working for that restaurant 7 people asked to see the special menus and those were people who were not overweight. Just because the information is out there doesn’t mean people are going to ask for it.
        Nutritional values have been posted on food since 1994 and since then obesity has sky rocketed. If people want to change things has to be direct at the food manufacturers or restaurants not the government. People need to contact them and ask for things, think grassroots movement. Societal pressure does more to change things rather then laws.
        If society wants things to change it has to educate the public not regulate it.

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      • mannyvel says:

        I was wondering when someone was going to be crazy enough to say something like this in public.

        Ban those who behave irresponsibly from benefiting from the collective good.

        “Irresponsibly” means “in ways that the committee doesn’t like.”

        This is the logical endpoint of Obamacare, and essentially the end of America as we know it.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        Jeff, even if you pay your medical bills fully out of your own pocket, society still bears the cost of your disability and premature death.

        For example, “We the people” pay to install wheelchair ramps for people who can’t walk after their heart attacks or obesity-induced knee replacements. (These ramps are convenient for people pushing children in strollers and delivery drivers, too.) There’s no way to bill you for your use of these ramps, or even any way to reliably distinguish between a person who uses them because he had a heart attack through poor lifestyle choices vs through bad (usually genetic) luck.

        We paid for 13 years of K-12 education, and possibly subsidized four more years of university education, and we expected you to be a productive worker for 50 years after that, not to end up dead or too sick to work halfway through that time. There’s no way for society to recoup its costs there when you squander our investment by dying prematurely.

        Society incurs costs every time it loses an adult. That’s why disability-adjusted curves give different dollar values to death at different ages. Society loses most when a 25-year-old dies: we’ve fully invested, and you’ve repaid almost nothing.

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  7. Melissa says:

    Why not charge $1 to have half of the meal put into a ‘to-go’ box immediately to be brought to the table at the end of the dinner, with the check. That way you’re not tempted to eat it immediately, and you get two meals for the price of 1.

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  8. David says:

    The problem with Americans is they are given large portions and they eat it all. It’s likely because as children, we were told to finish the plate. I don’t really get this. I have rarely felt guilt about not finishing something. I also don’t understand when I am leaving a food joint and someone says “Hold on, I am going to fill up my (soda) cup.” Really? You just had 24 oz of Coke and now you are getting another 24 oz to go?

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