October 12, 2007

‘Healthy’ Food, Unhealthy Choices?

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New research by Cornell’s Prof. Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, shows that dining at “healthy” fast food restaurants may not be as beneficial as advertised, often leading to poor eating habits.
Despite a growing health conscience in America, two-thirds of the national population is considered overweight according the National Center for Health Statistics. Wansink’s research may help to explain one of the reasons behind this perplexing paradox.
By comparing eating habits at two restaurants — McDonald’s and Subway —Wansink observed two important trends. First, customers at Subway, the “healthy” restaurant, consistently underestimated the number of calories in each meal. Second, customers at Subway were more likely to choose higher-calorie side dishes. Accounting for the combined effects of these consumer tendencies, Wansink’s study concluded that eating at “healthy” restaurants may be unhealthier than people think.
Although “healthy” fast food restaurants like Subway do offer low-calorie dishes, not all meals on the menu are as healthy as customers assume them to be. According to Wansink, many of these restaurants often use relative words like “fresh” and “low-carb” to describe menu items, leading people to think something is good to eat when it really isn’t.
“If you really want to estimate what you’re eating, the best thing to do is guess the number of calories and double that,” said Wansink.
One prescription for this dilemma is to require fast food restaurants to post calorie counts on their menu boards. The Center for Science in the Public Interest advocates this strategy as a way to provide people with the information they need to make healthy food choices when eating out.
Margo Wootan ’86, director of nutrition policy at the CSPI, said, “There is a tremendous amount of interest in eating healthy, but … too many times, people think they’re making healthy choices when they’re not.”
However, while calorie displays may lead to more informed decisions, Wansink feels this approach would not necessarily lead to healthier decisions.
“I don’t think it would change behavior,” he said. “It might actually backfire because people still like the indulgent.”
Wansink said that providing calorie counts would likely discourage diners from trying to eat healthy when they find out that most of the things they enjoy at “healthy” restaurants are poor choices. Blaming the “what the heck” effect, he argues that customers would probably choose to eat unhealthier but better tasting foods rather than continue trying to eat well at “healthy” restaurants.
Last month, a NYC court case dealt with this very issue of posting calorie counts. In its decision, the court ruled in favor of the New York State Restaurant Association, arguing against requiring fast food restaurants to display calorie information on menus. While many chain restaurants provide nutrition facts on company websites, the court ruled that the City could not force these restaurants to post the information on store menus.
Rick Sampson, president of the NYSRA, praised the court’s decision. He said the City should not single out and penalize quick service restaurants, many of who already provide nutrition information in other forms.
Many people in the restaurant industry, including Sampson, feel the answer to America’s eating problem is not regulation, but consumer education.
“The answer is education,” he said. “It’s about educating in schools. It’s about educating parents.”
Anikka Stensson, manager of media relations at the National Restaurant Association said, “Restaurants everywhere offer a variety of healthful menu options to fit anyone’s dietary needs and preferences, but it’s up to each person to order those options.”
Sampson feels that in order for the food industry to change what it offers customers, people must demand healthier foods.
“In our business, we give our customers what they want. If we don’t we’re out of business,” he said.
According to Wansink, what most people want right now is something that tastes good. Although many people today are trying to eat more healthily, they are not willing to sacrifice taste. Taste is what customers want, preferring the delicious to the nutritious, and that’s what restaurants will continue to offer — calories and all.