Calories on menus won’t slim down America

A Chick-fil-A in south Orlando, Florida features menus showing caloric value of items for sale. (George Skene/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)
A Chick-fil-A in south Orlando, Florida features menus showing caloric value of items for sale. (George Skene/Orlando Sentinel/TNS) Tribune News Service

Counting calories is now the law of the land. This month, a long-delayed regulation came into effect requiring all food chains with 20 or more locations to list calorie information on their menus. Nutritionists fought to include the rule in the Affordable Care Act as a means of fighting obesity. But it turns out the regulation is based on weak science.

In New York City, which pioneered the policy in 2008, menu labeling has had no effect on how many calories diners consume, according to one large study by New York University. Other studies show minimal effects.

Before the Food and Drug Administration’s rule was enacted, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services commissioned a rigorous controlled experiment from the Rand Corp. The results, published this year, found that if people were informed about the calories in menu items, they purchased food with 38 fewer calories, on average. That’s about three walnuts.

Why should the FDA impose a regulation to shave 38 calories off a Chipotle order? The justification from the start, as articulated by FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, is that saving even a few dozen calories a day would add up over the course of a year. “You could end up consuming 10,000 to 20,000 fewer calories making you three to five pounds slimmer,” he wrote.

Although we’ve long held on to the idea that slimming down is merely a matter of beating the math — create a caloric deficit of 3,600 calories and lose a pound of fat — the evidence has been stacking up against it for more than a century.

Since the early 1900s, medical research has shown that people do lose weight on calorie-restricted diets — in the short term. But in most cases, they quickly gain it back. Moreover people usually put back on more weight than they’d lost. This cruel twist is due to the fact that a person’s metabolic rate slows down to accommodate semi-starvation, but it doesn’t bounce back.

To maintain that weight loss, it appears a person must restrict calories for life – a state of deprivation that, as it turns out, few humans can sustain.

Thankfully, new avenues of research offer hope, as scientists discover factors other than calories that affect how our bodies regulate weight.

Insufficient sleep, for instance, may impair fat loss, as one small controlled trial concluded. Not getting enough sleep also increases the hunger hormone, ghrelin, according to another study. Chronic stress also appears to stimulate ghrelin, as well as the stress hormone cortisol, which is thought to weaken the body’s ability to metabolize carbohydrates.

Some 70 clinical trials now show that restricting carbohydrates is a highly effective way of fighting obesity. One recent survey of some 1,500 people found that more than a third of them were able to keep off more than 20 pounds and maintain a low-carb diet for two years or more. Another study, conducted at Stanford, found that subjects successfully lost weight without monitoring calories simply by eating high-quality “real” foods and more vegetables while reducing refined carbohydrates.

Counting calories doesn’t work – and it distracts us from what does work. It’s a shame the government is requiring restaurants to bear the burden of a policy that is sure to fail.

Nina Teicholz is a science journalist and executive director of the Nutrition Coalition, a group dedicated to evidence-based nutrition policy.