NYC Menu Labeling Increases Consumer Awareness

At NYC fast food chains, 1 in 3 lunchtime customers purchase food containing more than 1000 calories, half of the common 2000-calorie daily intake recommendation.  Good, I got your attention.

In 2008, New York City set the nation’s precedent as the first jurisdiction to require restaurant chains with 15 or more locations nationwide to post caloric information on menus and menu boards.  A study in the December issue of the American Journal of Public Health found that this regulation increases the number of people who see and use this information.

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Introducing the Imagination Diet

For many, with the New Year comes a new diet.  Motives may vary, but let’s face it: you’d prefer to look like the slim “1” in 2011 that replaced that big fat “0” in 2010.

Yet, why you want to eat healthier is not the real issue.  How is the big question.  While dozens of different diets exist suggesting what foods you should and should not eat, maybe it is not what you eat but what you imagine yourself eating.  What is your favorite food?  Probably the one most diets would tell you to stay away from.  For our purposes: let’s say Reese’s Pieces.  (For those with peanut allergies, I apologize.)

Now, take a moment and imagine eating that bag of Reese’s Pieces.  Eat them one at a time, savoring every morsel.  Finish the whole bag, and not those kid-sized ones.  Now reach for the real bag of Reese’s Pieces.  After this little imagination exercise, you will become habituated to that particular food and consume less of it.  This theory follows those same ideas introduced in any intro economics class: marginal utility to consume.  The first Reese’s Pieces is always better than the tenth.  Of course, even the best imagination cannot confuse thinking of consumption with consumption itself.  Nonetheless, mentally simulating consumption can bring about habituation to that particular food.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University tested this theory, publishing their results in the December issue of Science.  Using M&M’s (sorry Reese’s Pieces fans), they performed five simple and simply fascinating experiments to show that this exercise reduces food consumption. Continue reading

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New Year’s Resolutions

New Year’s.  As January 1 rolls around, billions of people celebrate the onset of a new beginning.  I vividly remember those days in elementary school when, before we would leave for winter break, we would list our New Year’s Resolutions.  As an eight-year-old, I would plan to not fight with my sister (there is home video footage that I broke this resolution January 2), to keep up those grades, and to clean my room.  Kids didn’t worry about finding 15 minutes each day to walk on the treadmill or shedding those extra 15 pounds they put on in the previous year.  They were just having a growth spurt.

Yet, as adults list their resolutions for 2011, food and fitness are two top concerns.  And that goal of staying healthy is becoming more and more of a challenge in a world where Wii Fitness substitutes exercise and fast food chains circle in on the snack industry (i.e. the KFC Snacker; the Taco Bell Fourthmeal, aka “the meal between dinner and breakfast”).  It won’t be long before these nutritional goals rank high on the list of elementary school students, too, as the obesity statistics among all age groups climb each year.

With food on the forefront of our minds, I introduce this blog on food policy and science.  At first glance, the topic might seem to be a closed case.  There might be more cobwebs over the food pyramid you learned when you were ten than the actual Egyptian ones, but you surely did not forget to eat healthy and to exercise daily.

However, how the government should be involved in taxing unhealthy products, food marketing through advertisements and shelf placement, and increasing availability of healthy choices—these are all subjects of contention.  Plus, children, like always, complicate things.  Policy in regard to cafeteria and a la carte food in schools, TV food advertisements targeting children, and happy meals (with toys!) are all matters we must face.

As for the science, researchers are still trying to figure out why we eat what we eat.  It’s more than just “it tastes good.”  What genes, if any, lie behind obesity?  The answer to this head scratcher can influence the national attitude toward the forever growing overweight population.  Are overweight, particularly obese, individuals victims cursed with slow metabolisms or pigs that cannot control their impulses?  Or perhaps somewhere in between?  Plus, 2010 still never answered whether diet supplements are healthy and, if so, which ones.  And the number of diet books that spew hundreds of different suggestions would leave anyone drained and hungry.  Should carbs be embraced or rejected?

So, as we kickoff the New Year wondering whether carrot cake could be considered our vegetable for the day, my resolution for 2011: to write this blog on food policy and science, aiming to skim the surface of the complexities of these issues.  And, with Bugs Bunny as your role model, just eat the carrot.

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