August 29, 2007
People Consume More Calories In Supposedly Healthier Restaurants?

If you think you can trust your intuition you probably are making a mistake. Our intuitive judgments about food cause us to eat too much. We let our guards down in what we perceive as safer territory. People who eat at supposedly healthier restaurants consume more calories than those prudent people who wisely choose to eat at places with unhealthy food.

An important new study from the Journal of Consumer Research explains the “American obesity paradox”: the parallel rise in obesity rates and the popularity of healthier food. In a series of four studies, the researchers reveal that we over-generalize “healthy” claims. In fact, consumers chose beverages, side dishes, and desserts containing up to 131% more calories when the main dish was positioned as “healthy”.

“In our black and white view, most food is good or not good,” explain Pierre Chandon (INSEAD, France) and Brian Wansink (Cornell University). “When we see a fast-food restaurant like Subway advertising its low-calorie sandwiches, we think, ‘It’s OK: I can eat a sandwich there and then have a high-calorie dessert,’ when, in fact, some Subway sandwiches contain more calories than a Big Mac.”

In one study, Chandon and Wansink had consumers guess how many calories are in sandwiches from two restaurants. They estimated that sandwiches contain 35% fewer calories when they come from restaurants claiming to be healthy than when they are from restaurants not making this claim.

The result of this calorie underestimation: Consumers then chose beverages, side dishes, and desserts containing up to 131% more calories when the main course was positioned as “healthy” compared to when it was not—even though, in the study, the “healthy” main course already contained 50% more calories than the “unhealthy” one.

Do you need to lose weight? I'm sorry, you are going to have to shift your tastes toward thoroughly unhealthy restaurants so that you don't delude yourself about how many calories you are consuming. Eat unhealthy to be healthy.

A man of science might argue there must be a more rational option. The more rational option (know exactly how many calories are in what you are ordering) requires better information availability. Therein lies the problem. Marketers don't want to give you reasons to order fewer items on the menu. But if we had an automated way to know as we order how many calories we've racked up so far then we could pick and choose to lower calorie counts.

But people who live in expensive housing might know how to avoid the dangers of high calorie foods in healthier restaurants.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 August 29 06:37 PM  Brain Appetite

Jens said at August 30, 2007 12:30 AM:

Lesson: Just skip dessert.

Another point would be calory saturation. If your main course is fairly calory dense and you eat it fairly quickly, you're going to feel full and not in the mood for desserts or side-disches. Also I stay clear of Diet drinks, because I perceive that they affect how full i fell.

Mthson said at August 30, 2007 3:10 AM:

Eat small portions, more often. Take food home in a to-go box.

Nick said at August 30, 2007 6:20 PM:

Subway, an example given, is actually pretty good with information. In fact, their napkins give the names of the low-calory subs, and the calories. You just have to be smart enough not to order the cookies.

samson said at August 30, 2007 8:16 PM:

but healthy food and high calorie food are not mutually exclusive! healthy food cannot be reduced to a single, caloric dimension.

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