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Would You Like Some Guilt With That Popcorn?

popcornYesterday, I blogged about the McKinsey discussion paper that calls on governments to throw everything they’ve got at the obesity epidemic – proven or unproven – anything is better than nothing.

That said, it is indeed timely that this week, the US-FDA announced sweeping regulations on putting calories on menus, not just in fastfood restaurants but also in grocery stores, vending machines, and movie theatres.

Personally, I am all for it – never mind that we have yet to show that providing this information at the point of purchase actually changes behaviour of the target population (namely the people who do need to watch their calories) – I, for one, do find this information helpful.

Thus, every time I visit a McDonalds restaurant (yes, I do), I study the nutritional information that this restaurant chain has been making available to any customer who bothers to ask for decades.

Indeed, I do admit to deriving a kind of voyeuristic pleasure in seeing those astonishingly high numbers on certain food items and cannot help myself from inwardly shaking my head at the poor schmucks who order those foods.

What I do wonder, however, is whether knowing these numbers has ever actually changed my own behaviour.

Take movie popcorn for instance – I love it! (interestingly this is a habit that I only developed since moving to Canada).

Not that I am not aware that a large popcorn can easily have all the calories I need for the rest of the weekend – yup, I know that – indeed, I am making an “informed choice”.

In the few milliseconds I spend thinking about whether or not I may wish to skip the popcorn this time, those calorie numbers do regularly flash through my mind – in the end, the popcorn always wins.

So how will having the numbers up on the menu board staring in my face change things for me?

My guess is that I’ll still buy the popcorn, except now it will come with an even larger portion of guilt than before.

Obviously, with the numbers up there for everyone to see (including the people in line behind me), there may well now be an added tinge of embarrassment on top of the guilt.

Well, I may not be the typical consumer or even the target of these measures – after all these are meant for the people who could obviously do with some nudging towards eating a healthier diet (not really sure why I am excluding myself from this list).

Yet, I don’t mind these measures, I have always considered this a good idea.

But will having these numbers staring me in the face everytime I eat out change my consumption of popcorn? Probably not.

Will they make me think thrice (I already think twice)? Perhaps.

So to sum up, funnily enough, I find myself in full support of this measure – even if I am not really sure why.

I guess anything is better than nothing.

Frankfurt, Germany


  1. 5 years ago I lost 75lbs and have been able to maintain my weightloss through good nutrition and exercise (not fad diets, etc.). I personally love this idea and would definitely reconsider my options when eating out if it had too many calories, fat, etc. I regularly read food labels and if it is beyond what I consider “reasonable” I almost always choose a better option for three reasons – I want to stay healthy, I dislike feeling guilty and embarrassed by eating something that is my daily intake of calories and going back to the way I was is not an option.

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  2. I do look up nutritional information for restaurants before going and base my choices upon what works best for my diet now. I really love the nutrition calculators that will let you adjust how things are made (I’ll have that same burger in a lettuce wrap and without butter or mayo). That said, if I’m going to the movies, I am getting popcorn. I already know how awful it is and I don’t care, it’s delicious and I’m getting it. I do love having the info available to me because I track everything I eat though.

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  3. I think you nailed it with “informed choice.” I follow Dr. Yoni Freedhoff’s theory that your caloric budget is like a financial budget. Overall, it’s a good idea to stay within it, so calorie counts help me decide if I want to “buy” that particular food. That said, once I make that choice, I do it totally without guilt, just as I would spend more money on vacation totally without guilt. Pecan pie deserves whipped cream on the side, not self-flagellation. So does movie popcorn.

    But then I’m a quasi-HAESer and pretty laid-back about weight. I try to live a reasonably healthy lifestyle that’s not out of control, but doesn’t require perpetual deprivation either. Movies just aren’t the same without popcorn, and it’s not as if I go to them every day, just as I don’t eat pecan pie every day.

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  4. It is finally time that the food industry is asked to provide more information to the public about the food they are serving. Their argument for a long time has been that this information is already available, but having it in a pamphlet or brochure somewhere behind the counter, crammed in a box, is not that helpful or effective.

    There are some obvious drawbacks to menu labelling, such as the potential for healthy higher calorie foods to be perceived as less healthy than a food that is very low in nutritional value (e.g., milk versus diet pop; something with healthy fats such avocado or nuts versus without). Also, calories are not the only important piece of nutritional information that is valuable when making a decision, and most health organizations have moved away from a focus on calories or weight loss.

    However, the benefits of menu labelling still far outweigh the potential drawbacks:

    – first, it provides consumers with more information than what they previously had, which is never a bad thing. Why should we have labels on food in grocery stores but not in restaurants? This is about the right to information for consumers.

    – second, it ensures that the food companies provide this information front and centre to consumers, at point-of-purchase. Knowing about the number of calories in a food item before you buy it is much more likely to lead to change than reading it about it after you’ve already purchased the food. In general, the initiative also just creates more accountability for the food industry, and hopefully will lead consumers to ask even more questions about the food they are buying.

    – third, there is potential for the reformulation of food products by the food industry, given that consumers will finally see front and centre how high their products are in calories, and industry won’t like this (*we just hope the reformulations are for the most part in a healthier direction)

    – lastly, we hope that this could lead to healthier behaviours at a population level, over time…..even if it’s not every time you buy popcorn at the movie theatre, perhaps every other time you go you will really seond guess your choice more than once…even small changes over time at a population level can lead to long-term changes. We need to change our food environment and eating ‘norms’ altogether, and there’s not one single way to do this. As Yoni says, all the sandbags are needed to stop the flood, because it’s not enough just to teach people how to swim better. This initiative is just one of those sandbags.

    Initially there was direction to include sodium, along with calories, on the menu labels. Those of us working to support the health of the public still want this additional information available. The concern is that food companies could change the calories in a product but significantly increase the sodium level to mask the change in taste – we hope that individuals and other organizations will continue to advocate for the inclusion of sodium on the labels. We have come this far to consider calories, and is it very unlikley that they will go back and add sodium later (once the new menus are created). Unfortunately the food industry seems to have lobbied hard enough to get the sodium removed.

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  5. Often lost in the discussion of required nutrition disclosure is that fact that calories and basic macronutrient data is super-helpful info — that is actually USED throughout the day — by many people with Type 1 diabetes and for many with Type 2, plus many individuals who are post-bariatric-surgery.

    These groups — despite stereotypes to the contrary — are full of people who are extremely carb-aware and historically deeply frustrated by the difficulty in getting basic and reliable nutritional info from restaurants so that they can make informed choices about food, medication and/or exercise to better manage resulting post-prandial blood glucose.

    Follow some of them around on any given day and there’s no doubt that real people, in the real world, use this data to help manage their disease.

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