Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Menu board calories matter to those who care.

There's been some negative press on menu board calories with many studies (including a recent one with adolescents) suggesting they don't drive change at all.

My gut's told me that the studies are premature and perhaps poorly designed, but guts are not something a person can hang their hat on (too slippery and cylindrical I guess).

That said, my gut's told me a few things.

Firstly it's told me that perhaps fast food restaurants aren't places where we'll see major changes. After all, people go to fast food restaurants to get specific foods. People go for their Big Mac's, their nuggets, their chicken buckets. People go to get foods that they specifically enjoy and putting calories on menu boards may be less likely to change their behaviour as the variety at fast food restaurants isn't much to get excited about and moreover, people already know what they're going to buy before they're at the counter.

Secondly it's told me that these things take time. When the surgeon general first started warning people about the dangers of smoking people didn't just suddenly throw out all of their cigarettes. Changes in attitudes towards smoking took a great deal of time and had someone pointed at the surgeon general's warning and said, "look, it didn't work so let's stop telling people not to smoke", I suspect there'd be a great many more smokers today. Menu board calories will likely need both time and caloric context to have impact.

Thirdly it's told me that looking at all comers isn't wise. By no means is everyone who enters a fast food establishment trying to control their weight or calories, and so looking at all comers may average out a real impact on the smaller percentage of people who actually do want to utilize that information.

Well guess what, my gut might be right - at least on point number 3.

A preliminary report out of New York City found that of the roughly 15% of fast food patrons who report caring about calories, they eat 106 fewer calories per outing than those who don't care or who ignore the counts.

Now the study's not been published yet so it may well have methodological flaws, but even if it does I think the study of folks who want to use the numbers is a much more useful means of analyzing impact.

My gut also wonders whether or not having calories on menu boards, along with public health campaigns on caloric literacy, will increase over time the percentage of folks who report caring.

So for all of those folks out there who've been so keen on jumping on the look it doesn't work bandwagon, perhaps you guys should have a sit down with my gut, or at the very least, give this experiment more time.