❝ Until recently, the sophisticated view about calorie labels in restaurants was one of despair: A series of studies suggested that the practice, required by Obamacare and modeled on what has been done in New York and other cities, just doesn’t succeed in promoting healthy food choices and reducing obesity.
But comprehensive new research offers a dramatically different picture. It finds that if we divide Americans into subgroups — the normal, the overweight, and the obese — we’ll find that calorie labels have had a large and beneficial effect on those who most need them.
❝ Partha Deb and Carmen Vargas, both of Hunter College, focused on what happened to people’s body mass from 2003 to 2012. They used data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, the annual, nationally representative survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in collaboration with state health departments. The survey collects information on self-reported height and weight, as well as demographic information…
But things get much more interesting once we start to look at subpopulations, in terms of Body Mass Index: normal, overweight or obese. In all three subpopulations, men’s BMI was significantly reduced after the introduction of calorie labels. The reduction was largest among the obese, next largest among the overweight, and smallest for those with a normal BMI. For women, the effect was statistically significant only for those who were overweight.
❝ Digging deeper, Deb and Vargas find that both men and women in the normal weight class tend to live in high-income areas and to be college graduates; that group shows little or no effect from the calorie labels. Among the men and women who show the largest effects, an unusually high percentage tend to have no education beyond high school, to be older, and to be Hispanic.
In general, these results make a lot of sense. People of normal weight have no reason to change their behavior; they don’t have a weight problem. And if people are highly educated, it’s possible that calorie labels will not tell them a whole lot.
❝ By contrast, men and women with weight problems have good reasons to try to lose weight — and the labels have helped them to do just that. And if consumers are less well-educated, maybe the calorie labels are more likely to tell them something they don’t know.
❝ All in all, it’s a terrific story: The people who need to lose weight are losing weight, and the people who are least likely to know about caloric content are learning about it.
In this light, the research leaves only one serious puzzle: obese women, for whom the labels have had no effect. Deb and Vargas do not try to explain this finding. It remains a mystery.
Obviously a lot more research is needed. More support and supportive public practices may further add to the plus side of the equation. Obesity has already started to turn around a wee bit in young people. We already are a nation that exercises for fitness more than most. Maybe, we’re getting ready to exhibit some leadership in healthy eating?