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Counting Calories and Healthy Intuition

I’ve had a couple of experiences that helped me see that intuition may not always lead you toward the healthiest choices.

Experience #1: Some co-workers were traveling through an airport in NY where the calorie counts are posted. If you had a choice of salad or pizza, which would you assume was better for you? Guess what, the salad had more calories. Of course, the salad also probably had healthier ingredients. Hmmm.

Experience #2: I was in Panera, which posts calorie counts even where the law doesn’t require it yet. Looking at the baked goods, I saw a “muffie” (kind of a flattened muffin) and a cookie that looked good. The cookie was over 400 calories and the muffie was 250. Would you have guessed that? I didn’t. (And the muffie was good.)

One thing we can do for consumers is help guide them toward healthy choices. An easy place to start is by posting calorie counts, so I’m glad that’s coming soon across the U.S. The Wall Street Journal today reported that the administration is proposing to widen the mandatory posting of calories to include more than traditional restaurants, e.g., airplanes, convenience stores, and movie theaters. We can debate where exactly the line should be drawn but I can say as a frequent traveler myself, making it easier to make healthy choices on the road would be a good thing (which is lower calorie on United – the sandwich or the salad?).

What will the effect be once this information is provided? The WSJ story showed data that there was a slight drop in calories purchased among Starbucks clients in NYC after calorie counts were posted, primarily in the extra goodies they buy to go with their coffee (the WSJ statistics were from a paper posted here).

Visiting family this summer, I ate at Cracker Barrel, ordering my favorite blueberry pancakes, eggs, and bacon. I’m betting this meal is close to 1/2 days worth of calories. Fortunately, when I eat it, I tend to skip lunch that day. When the calorie posting comes, what will the effect be for CB?

When you pay your bill at CB, you’ll notice they have an electronic tally of all the items ordered. If they have good analytics, they should be tracking effects of showing the calorie counts and then trying experiments to see the effects on consumers. What happens if we change the formulation or portion size to bring the count down? Or trade out something for fruit – maybe same calories but you feel a little better about what you are eating (like my blueberries in the pancakes)? How about new menu items? Those with the data and the analytics can start to work within this new system to find something that works for them and for consumers — and ideally we end up with people eating a little less, a little healthier.

In the future, going beyond calories – helping people understand “good” vs “bad” calories is a logical next step (that pizza vs salad question) but giving this first nudge, helping people where their intuition might not work, is a great start.

©2010 Alex L. Bangs, All Rights Reserved.

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