How Eating Behavior Research Can Impact Public Policy

Photo Credit: Creative Commons by Kaboompics/Karolina

Imagine: you and a friend decide to check out a new restaurant, and you are looking at the unfamiliar menu.  How would you decide what to order? Would you try something you’ve never had before or stick to a more familiar item, a tried and true favorite? Would knowing the calorie count of the menu items factor into your decision?

At the 2016 Eating Disorders Research Society conference in NYC, we had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Christina Roberto, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania (and EDRU alum!), speak about her research in this area. Dr. Roberto and colleagues were interested in figuring out whether or not including calorie counts on restaurant menus would influence how much people consumed. Research participants ate a meal in a laboratory “restaurant” designed by the researchers under one of three conditions: 1) menus without calorie counts, 2) menus with calorie counts of all items, and 3) menus containing calorie counts and information about the recommended daily caloric intake for adults. It turned out that those who were in either of the groups receiving information about food calorie counts ate significantly less during the meal than individuals who did not receive any information about the calorie content of menu items.

Dr. Roberto and colleagues did not stop there. They also later asked all participants what they consumed on the study day after the laboratory meal. They found that those who had seen the calorie labels but no additional information about recommended daily calorie intake ate more after the meal than those in the other groups. People who had eaten at the restaurant with calorie labels plus recommended caloric intake information ate significantly less during the course of the whole day than the people in the other groups. Taken together, the results of this study indicate that it is generally helpful for people to know both the calorie count of a food and how that fits into a daily recommendation. [Of course, please note that the impact of this information – and daily dietary recommendations – may vary for some individuals with eating disorders.] Policy makers have taken these results to heart, and by May 2017 all restaurants with 20 or more locations will be required to display calorie information of all menu items along with a statement about recommended daily caloric amounts.

Dr. Roberto’s talk at EDRS was within a symposium exploring why we eat what we eat. The research presented encourages us all to attend to the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle cues in our environments encouraging us to eat one food or another. Advertising is one example of a not-so-subtle cue. Dr. Roberto reviewed some of her research on the use of cartoon characters to advertise food to children. In this work, children ages 4 to 6 were asked to compare the taste of food items with and without cartoon characters on the packaging. Kids were presented with graham crackers, gummy fruit snacks, and baby carrots. Each type of food was presented in two forms: one in packaging with a cartoon character on it (Dora the Explorer, Shrek, or Scooby Doo), and one in packaging with no images on it. Ultimately, kids thought that the foods advertised by cartoon characters were much tastier than foods without these cartoon characters on the packaging even though the actual foods inside the packages did not differ! That is, kids said they liked the taste of a graham cracker more when Dora the Explorer was on the package than when she was not. This study demonstrated the power that advertising has over our food choices, starting at a very early age.

There are many contributing factors to what we eat including what foods available to us, what size plate we are eating off of, and whether or not we are watching TV, multitasking, or are otherwise preoccupied while eating. As we learn more about the variables that cue our food choices, the amount we eat, and our perception of how satisfying the food is, this body of research can also be used to help policy makers help us to be more active decision makers as we look at a menu or shop in a supermarket.

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