July 2, 2013
Not that any holiday is a testament to healthy eating, but none quite compares to the Fourth of July when it comes to embracing our inner pig.
Exhibit A: The National Meat Institute says that on Thursday, Americans will consume about 150 million hot dogs. That means every other person will eat one dog, although more likely a lot of people will chomp down two or three. And those of us who don’t will be eating burgers or sausages or ribs, after warming up with a pile of chips.
In truth, though, it really doesn’t take a special occasion for us to fall to the siren song of naughty chow. As Stephanie Clifford noted last weekend in a New York Times piece titled “Why Healthy Eaters Fall for Fries,” the dilemma for many Americans when they enter a fast food restaurant is that while their head says “salad,” their heart is screaming “BACON!” She listed some of the more recent hits on fast food menus–the bacon habanero Quarter Pounder at McDonald’s, the bacon-filled tater tots at Burger King, the six-slices-bacon-and-cheeseburger at Carl’s and Hardee’s and the piece de resistance, Dunkin’ Donuts’ egg and bacon sandwich between two halves of a glazed doughnut.
The story also quoted McDonald’s CEO Donald Thompson, who pointed out although the chain spends about 16 percent of its advertising budget promoting salads, they account for only two to three percent of its sales.
Clifford cited a study done a few years ago at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, which concluded that the mere presence of healthy items on a menu actually encourages diners to tumble for the unhealthy ones. Lead researcher Gavan Fitzsimons calls this “vicarious goal fulfillment.” Simply seeing healthy items are available, he says, allows people to feel they’ve made the effort. And then they order meals they know aren’t good for them.
Enough with all the counting
We have ourselves a quandary.
Almost a third of Americans now qualify as obese and yet, to believe Fitzsimons, putting healthy meals on fast food menus only makes it more likely that we’ll gravitate to the bad stuff. There are those who believe that providing calorie counts for meals will start to make a difference. In fact, the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a Obamacare, requires that starting next year, any restaurant chain with more than 20 outlets must tell customers how many calories its meals contain.
Sadly, this doesn’t seem to help much, at least according to several studies that already have been done. Research at the University of Pennsylvania, published in 2011, found that even though most of the study’s participants said they noticed the calorie counts, and almost a third said they were “influenced” by them, they didn’t lower their calorie intake all that much. That’s pretty much what a 2011 study of Taco Time restaurants in Seattle also concluded–that people consumed as many calories in the outlets with listed calorie counts as in those without them.
So what gives? Does that mean that no amount of calorie-guilting will make a difference?
Now it’s personal
Maybe not. Maybe it’s all in the presentation. Some experts believe that calorie totals aren’t all that effective because they make people add up a bunch of numbers, and if they do make the effort, many still don’t realize when a meal has gone over the top.
Recent research suggests that what may work are basic visual cues. A study published earlier this year showed that menus using symbols of green, yellow and red lights seemed to make a difference. A green light was printed next to foods with fewer than 400 calories, yellow lights next to foods with between 401 and 800 calories and red lights next to foods with more than 800 calories. And it turned out that diners ordering from menus without calorie info or symbols ate meals averaging 817 calories, while those exposed to the streetlight icons consumed meals averaging 696 calories. Not a huge difference, but it can add up over time.
Another approach is to make calorie consumption personal. Two recent studies, one at Texas Christian University and another at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine found that telling people how much they would need to walk to burn off the meal they were about to order got their attention.
When you read that it could take two hours of “brisk walking” to get rid of the calories in a quarter-pound double cheeseburger, well, that’s hard to ignore. People using menus providing that information ordered meals with an average of 100 to 200 fewer calories than those without it.
Said Ashlei James, who worked on the TCU study: “Brisk walking is something nearly everyone can relate to.”
Here’s more recent research on our eating habits:
- You mean you’re supposed to get a low score?: Even when they go to restaurants where calorie counts are posted, people–particularly teenagers–grossly underestimate the number of calories their meals contain. In a study published in the British Journal of Medicinelast month, diners’ estimates of the calories on their trays were, on average, 200 calories too low. For adolescents, the number was closer to 300. Oddly enough, the estimates were farther off the mark in Subway restaurants, apparently because people associate them with healthier meals.
- But it’s nice to have all that time to get to know the bread: For all the beatings that fast food restaurants take, a study by University of Toronto researchers found that the average number of calories in meals of sit-down chain restaurants were considerably higher. The average meal contained 1,128 calories, compared to 881 at fast-food places. Plus, meals at the sit-down places, on average, contained contained 151 percent of the recommended daily salt intake, 89 percent of daily fat, and 60 percent of daily cholesterol.
- Dreaming of Doritos is way less fattening: New research published last weekend in the journal Sleep confirms the bad news for night owls: the later you stay up, the more you eat.
- But how will they know what tastes good?: According to a study by Canadian researchers, young children who eat a lot of their meals in front of the TV tend to have higher cholesterol levels than kids with better eating habits.
- I’ll see your tofu and raise you a carrot: And if all of the above has motivated you to look for a new way to lose weight, there’s now an app called DietBet. Based on the principle of “social dieting,” it gets a group of people to pony up a little money–about $25–and everyone who loses four percent of their body weight in four weeks splits the pot.
Video bonus: Casey Neistat turns calorie detective to see how accurate calorie counts on labels really are. Not very, it turns out.
Video bonus bonus: And from BuzzFeed, here’s what 2,000 calories looks like.
More from Smithsonian.com
We Used to Actually Set Food on Fire to Figure Out How Many Calories It Had
March 15, 2012
Obesity, it would seem, is one big “My bad,” a painfully visible failure in personal responsibility. If you regularly chow down a pizza and a pint of ice cream for dinner, and your idea of a vigorous workout is twisting off caps on two-liter bottles of Coke, well, it’s pretty hard to give yourself a pass for packing on pounds.
Certainly, most doctors and dieticians still believe that being overweight is a matter of too many calories in, and not enough calories out, or put more bluntly, way too much food and way too little exercise. It’s all about overconsumption, right? End of story.
Except the plot appears to be thickening.
Recent research is beginning to suggest that other factors are at work, specifically chemicals used to treat crops and to process and package food. Scientists call them obesogens and in one study at the University of California, Irvine, they caused animals to have more and larger fat cells. ”The animals we treat with these chemicals don’t eat a different diet than the ones who don’t get fat,” explained lead researcher Bruce Blumberg. “They eat the same diet–we’re not challenging them with a high-fat or a high-carbohydrate diet. They’re eating normal foods and they’re getting fatter.”
The theory is that the chemicals disrupt hormonal systems and that can cause stem cells to turn into fat cells. In other words, the thinking goes, obesogens may help flip your fat switch.
But before you cleanse yourself of all responsibility for your tight-fitting clothes, keep in mind that plenty of researchers bristle at the suggestion that anything other than excess calories is to blame. In fact, a much-cited, recent study led by George Bray of Louisiana State University found that any diet can work so long as calories consumed are consistently reduced. Said Bray: “Calories count. If you can show me that it (the calories in, calories out model) doesn’t work, I’d love to see it.”
And yet, Kristin Wartman, writing on The Atlantic website, raises a provocative notion: “If the obesogen theory comes to be accepted… the food industry will be in trouble. It would be harder to keep promoting diet and “health” foods that may be low in calories but that also contain an array of substances that may actually prove to contribute to weight gain.”
Now that could get ugly.
More is less
Another new study on obesity does its own number on conventional thinking. Most of us likely think that we overeat because we love every bite. Not so, say Kyle Burger and Eric Stice at the Oregon Research Institute. They found that when we eat too much, it’s because we’re actually getting less pleasure from the food, so we have to consume more to feel rewarded.
The pair reached this conclusion through the use of a classic combo: teenagers and milkshakes. Based on brain scans done on the slurping adolescents, they determined that the ones who ate the most had the least activation of dopamine neurons, which generate pleasurable feelings. To compensate, they had to eat more.
But help may be on the way for eaters who can’t get no satisfaction. Later this spring the FDA is expected to approve a new drug called Qnexa. It both increases the pleasure of food and reduces the desire to keep eating.
Weight, weight, don’t tell me
Here’s more recent news from the fat front:
- Walk the walk: A study presented at the American Heart Association conference in San Diego yesterday concluded that people could overcome a genetic predisposition to obesity by walking briskly for an hour a day. By contrast, people with obesity in their families who watched television four hours a day were 50 percent more likely to carry on the weighty tradition.
- Blame your car: There seems to be a higher level of obesity in cities where a greater percentage of people drive to work alone.
- Sweet revenge: Research at the Harvard Public School of Health found that men who drink one sugar-sweetened beverage daily have a 20 percent higher risk of coronary heart disease than men who drink none.
- You’ll have to pry my Big Gulp from my cold, dead hands: Hawaii recently became the latest state to reject a proposal to impose a tax on soda. Over the past few years, Coca-Cola, Pepsi and the American Beverage Association have spent an estimated $70 million to lobby against these soda taxes, designed to get people to drink less sweet stuff.
- Enough, already: French researchers say that obese men are more likely to be infertile or have a low sperm count.
- Do these genes make me look fat? Scientists in Japan discovered a genetic mutation that could make people more likely to become obese if they eat a high-fat diet.
- Expensive tastes: A study of 30,000 Medicare recipients showed that the health care costs of overweight people increased almost twice as much as those with a more normal body mass index. Also, according to Gallup research, Americans paid around $80 billion for additional health care costs related to obesity in 2011.
- How about a little fudge for breakfast? Okay, let’s end on an upbeat note. A study in Israel found that starting the day with a full meal that includes a sweet dessert makes it easier for people to stick to a weight-loss program.
Video bonus: Obesity marches on: A little show-and-tell from the Centers for Disease Control.