Calorie counts: Information does not make people change their behavior. by mattsteinglass
August 4, 2008, 11:54 pm
Filed under: Food, Health

A lot of progressives and healthier-food supporters have come out against South LA’s new zoning regulations excluding new fast food outlets on the grounds that requiring restaurants to label their food with calorie counts would be more likely to bring healthier food. (See Ezra Klein here.)  I think this is a deeply misguided form of naive development thinking that health NGOs have spent the last 20 years moving away from.

Here’s the deal: NGOs used to call the materials and programs they produced to convince people to live healthier lives “Information, Education, and Communication”, or IEC for short. Beginning in the late 1990s, that all changed. Now they call it “Behavior Change Communication,” or BCC. Why? Because over the ’90s, a clear scientific consensus developed that having more information about your health had very little to do with changing your behavior regarding your health. The most important influence was the campaign against HIV. Preventing HIV is the easiest thing in the world: wear a condom when you have sex, and you’re safe. Period. And it was incredibly easy to communicate this fact. By the mid-1990s, there were African countries in which 98% of the population knew that AIDS was transmitted via sex and that if you wore a condom, you wouldn’t get it. But they didn’t wear condoms. They knew the disease would kill them, they knew how to avoid it, but they didn’t do the thing they had to do to protect themselves.

Similarly, heroin users possess lots of information about the negative consequences of their habits, none of which has much influence on their behavior. And most similarly, every smoker in America knew by the early 1980s that smoking caused lung cancer. It was right there on the pack. But that information wasn’t what cause smoking rates to decline. Smoking rates plummeted in the United States because of the secondhand smoke issue, which led first airlines, then workplaces, and finally municipalities to pass ordinances banning public smoking. Legislative action stigmatized smoking and has by now almost vanquished it as a public health issue.

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as secondhand grease. The negative externalities of fast food are harder to visualize and threaten to run up against individual rights and economic freedoms. But I think it’s incredibly naive to think that putting calorie information on a McDLT is going to lead teenagers to order something healthier or patronize another establishment. They say you can’t legislate morality. The history of the US in the 20th century shows this to be false. I don’t know whether zoning against fast food restaurants will prove to be an effective way of legislating morality, but I am pretty sure that putting calorie information on fast food will accomplish very little. Soft drinks and breakfast cereals have had calorie info on the side since I was a kid; how much good has that done us?


1 Comment so far
Leave a comment

If you happen to be watching your caloric intake, increasing the availability of nutritional information is great. I’m currently on an extended stay in NYC, and I love the fact that there’s nutritional information on everything at restaurants. Makes it real easy to eat well and make good choices. So if faulty thinking leads to these nutritional information stickers being ubiquitous in restaurants, it’s a victory for careful eaters everywhere.

Also, I think you’re underestimating the impact of condom promotion and cigarette pack warnings–developed world HIV infection and smoking rates did take a dip after they were introduced, although they have since plateaued (or in the case of HIV, risen again). Similarly, rising rates of obesity have plateaued since about 2000. It’s possible that the introduction of “Nutrition Facts” on prepared foods may have something to do with that. The real issue is the plateau that follows: the recalcitrant portion of the population that does not respond to simple information campaigns.

But just because informing people about the dangers of risky behavior does not eliminate that behavior, it does not therefore follow that public information campaigns are failed or useless strategies.

Comment by Philly

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: