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Counting Calories: Do You Want a Half-Order of Fries With That?

Few relationships are as complex as the one we have with food.

We love it we hate it, we veer from overcontrolling with restrictive diets, to out of control with Mint M&Ms (my addiction).

We know what we should do. But why we don’t do the right things is a riddle wrapped in an enigma dipped in secret sauce, and it appears connected to everything from socioeconomics to scheduling.

For example, if calorie counts were listed on fast food menus, the thinking went, we’d make better choices, getting Little Macs instead of Grandes, and a cellophane packet of strangely preserved apple slices instead of French fries.

Or not.

I’ve been rummaging around in research about doing the right thing, eating-wise, and it is complicated.

For example:

Starbucks customers are likely to be wealthier and better educated than the folks N.Y.U. surveyed. And the Stanford researchers found that the more money and education people had (according to census data about the neighborhood), the greater the reduction in calories per transaction. So it appears that money and education make a difference. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs perhaps? Lower-income people may be more concerned with hunger than higher income people. Or maybe it’s just easier to skip the scone with your latte than cut back on lunch or dinner.

I next chatted with Dan Ariely of Duke University, author of Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality, who conducted another study (not yet published) during lunchtime at a Chinese fast food outlet on campus.

“We tried posting calorie information. Turns out, it didn’t do much,” Ariely says. Then servers offered people reduced portions of their main dish (with no cost savings). Nobody liked that, including the restaurant, so he gave that up.

Next they tried offering customers reduced portions of their side dish, with info on the potential calories saved. “It was like the opposite of super-size me,” Ariely says. Some people were offered 25 cents off, some weren’t, and more than 40 percent of people accepted, regardless of the discount. (This seems related to the Starbucks research, where people were more likely to scale down the secondary item in their purchase rather than the main event.)

Thinking that maybe people who took the full portion were self controlling and left food on their plates, Ariel’s researchers approached people when they were done eating and asked them to join a study by bringing their plates into another room to be photographed. No self controlling found; those plates were clean.

The next day, the same people came to the same restaurant and were not offered the reduced portion. Nor did they request it; they went right back to the full meal.

Maybe they thought it was part of a promotion, that had ended? I suggested.

“What’s the promotion by giving you less food?” Ariely said. “And even if it was a promotion, why can’t they ask for it again?”

Why indeed? What does this mean?

“I think people need to be reminded at the moment,” he said. “We don’t  think very deeply about what we’re doing and what we’re eating.”

I believe that’s absolutely true.

Although I can think of other possibilities, too. Maybe someone pointing out a calorie savings has a shaming aspect to it, implying that the customer could stand to drop a few. It would be difficult, in that case, to say, “Oh no, I want all the fat that’s coming to me.” Or  maybe people are shy about making waves. Remember the Soup Nazi, and Bon Qui Qui (very funny video but it’s loud). It takes a certain kind of person to special order at a fast food counter–especially when you could, theoretically, just as easily eat only half of what you are served.

So I think it would be great if menus offered half orders, or the option of small fries and drink in meal deals instead of large everything. (When I’m Jonesing for McDonald’s, as sometimes happens, a kids’ Happy Meal satisfies me.) It might be easier for us to make incrementally better choices that way.

It’s all part of thinking more–a lot more–before we eat.  That’s called “mindful eating,” which is increasingly supported by research as effective for weight control, and will be the subject of my next post.

Counting Calories: Do You Want a Half-Order of Fries With That?

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APA Reference
Dembling, S. (2011). Counting Calories: Do You Want a Half-Order of Fries With That?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 14, 2020, from


Last updated: 13 Jan 2011
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