How the Fast Food Industry Can Fight Obesity

Studies show that a majority of Americans know they are eating too much and actually wish to lose weight.
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My typical ballpark snack, a giant salted pretzel, was short stopped by a new addition to the food stands at Yankee Stadium: calorie labels. I'm not usually a calorie-counter, but seeing the shocking 630-calorie label on a seemingly harmless pretzel suddenly made the 175-calorie cotton candy more appealing.

This is the response New York City health officials hoped for when they became the first city in the U.S. to implement a law requiring chain restaurants to post the calorie count of each item, in the same size and font as the price.

But some research questions the effectiveness of calorie labels. A study conducted by Brian Elbel at New York University, and published in Health Affairs, tracked customers at McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King, and Kentucky Fried Chicken in low-income neighborhoods in New York. The study found that calorie counts made no difference even for customers who noticed that calories were posted.

Another study by Stanford professor Phillip Leslie, used a breakdown of data by ZIP code to show that the effect of calorie posting was greater among more affluent, educated consumers.

So what can the restaurant industry do to nudge consumers to healthier decisions?

Harvard Business School Professor Jason Riis and his colleagues have tried experiments with national fast food chains where servers offered customers smaller portions ("Would you like to downsize those fries?"). They found that many of the customers took the offer, even with no discount.

"Getting the right portion in front of you is key," Riis said. "Most of us know that if a large portion is put in front of us, we are likely to get a couple hundred more calories than we need. It's very hard not to finish the plate, or to stop eating at the exact moment of satiation."

Others believe that policy is the key to swift change in the industry. Some economists suggest forced proportional pricing, making the super-size option less appealing. An early study published in the European Journal of Public Health concluded that pricing strategies canhelp overweight and obese consumers select appropriate portionsizes of soft drinks and snacks.

Studies show that a majority of Americans know they are eating too much and actually wish to lose weight. So why isn't the industry doing more to address this issue? Riis suggested that the industry may be afraid to undermine the perceptions of value for money.

"With continued creativity and more aggressive experimentation, better solutions can be found," he said. "Restaurants that make it easier for their customers to eat less will be rewarded."