Calorie Counts at Restaurants: TMI?


In the article discussing public health initiatives to combat obesity and their ethicality, Holm argues that there are three different forms of paternalism: hard paternalism (direct coercion), soft paternalism (giving unwanted information or foreclosing some options for action), and maternalism (control by inducing a guilty conscience). He then applies these types of paternalism to a discussion of the ethics behind obesity interventions. The first question is whether it is justifiable to promote a person’s own health or well-being, if they do not want intervention. I immediately thought of the ethicality of posting calorie counts at restaurants. If the person does not want the information, this is most definitely a form of soft paternalism, and even a little bit of maternalism as guilt may prevent someone from ordering what they want. But is it justified? 

Recent Studies 

Recent studies have found that while an estimated 15% of restaurant customers used calorie listings to help them choose healthier foods, the majority of listings were too confusing to guide diners to make healthier decisions.  Programs like these often encourage businesses to work towards putting healthier and more nutritious items on their menus as they know that customers will be provided with the nutritional facts in an easy and convenient way. For example, it is embarrassing for McDonald’s to have to disclose that 20 Chicken McNuggets is 860 calories. Thus this provides both an incentive for business owners to provide healthier alternatives as well for consumers to make healthier eating decisions.

Autonomous Decision Making 

Misinformation, along with busy lifestyles and too many unhealthy choices, has been pegged as one of the leading causes of the obesity epidemic. In order for consumers to make a fully autonomous decision based on informed choices, they must have enough information to do so. While it is likely that the calorie listings encourage people to make healthier decisions, the information provided is in no way biased. The calorie listings are simply stating the facts and thus I don’t think it is fair to view them as a bias or a source of forced paternalism. I think the main question is whether or not society or the state is justified in interfering in our personal choices. But is it really interfering if they are only helping us make a more well informed decision? I argue that no. The displays of calorie values are ethical as well as important to the health of our society.  There is no loss of freedom or autonomy in being provided the extra information, in fact autonomy is actually increased as more information allows one to form a better informed decision.

Demmers, Thea. “Opinion: Should Restaurants Be Forced to List Calorie Counts? No.” Montreal Gazetter, 26 Mar. 2014. Web. 31 Mar. 2014.
Hill, Valerie. “Researcher Argues Lifestyle Changes Key to Preventing Cancer.” The Record, 30 Mar. 2014. Web. 31 Mar. 2014.
Holm, S. “Obesity Interventions and Ethics.” Arguing about Bioethics. London: Routledge, 2012. N. pag. Print.

80 thoughts on “Calorie Counts at Restaurants: TMI?

  1. I really like how you used the calorie count as an example of soft maternalism. I agree wholeheartedly that it is a part of that form. When the information isn’t provided, often people disregard the fact that it isn’t there and may tend to over indulge in the food. However, if the calorie count is present then for some people it makes them more conscious of the food that they intake. Therefore, it helps to benefit them indirectly. Although this seems like a good suggestion for the business owners to simply provide healthier choices for their customers, it is not cost effective. In order to provide healthier or even the most fresh option it is costly to the business.

    I also like how you noted that the facts are facts. If the calorie count for 20 Chicken Mcnuggets is 860 calories, then that’s just the way it is. Unfortunately, it seems as though these businesses are trying to hide something when they do not disclose this information. However, it would turn customers away if they were to display these calorie counts. So, they have to make their pick on whether they want to help the world with obesity or simply continue to sell unhealthy foods and rake in the money.

  2. I like that you mentioned the amount of calories in a 20-piece Chicken McNugget because it sets the stage for how people will utilize this information. You also stated that calories listing are just facts that people can decide to utilize or just ignore. I also like the fact that you use McDonald’s as an example. McDonald’s seems to have received a damper on their reputation after the film Supersize Me came out. In Supersize Me, Morgan Spurlock ate McDonald’s for 30 consecutive days and gained around 24.5 pounds in the process (Almendrala 2014). Spurlock averaged around 5,000 calories a day during this time period (Almendrala 2014). Clearly, Spurlock was trying to make a point about how unhealthy McDonald’s is, but he took an extreme route. A high school teacher in Iowa has followed in Spurlock’s shoes, but is basing his meals on FDA regulations. Mr. John Cisna ate McDonald’s for 90 days and lost weight (Almendrala 2014)! Instead of “super sizing” meals like Spurlock, Cisna ate 2,000 calories a day and exercised 4-5 times a week (Almendrala 2014). His meals did not just consist of the “healthy” options but included French fries, Big Mac’s or soda. These two examples (even though they both may be extreme) show how the general public can choose to ignore calorie counts. Having calorie counts listed will not interfere with personal choices. If counting calories is not something you value, you will disregard the listings. However, if you are trying to lose weight or eat healthier calorie listings may be helpful reminders to stay focused.

    Article link:

    Almendrala, Anna. “Teacher John Cisna Says McDonald’s Diet Helped Him Lose Weight –But Is It Actually Healthy?” Huffington Post, 8 Jan. 2014. Web. 1 April 2014.

  3. I really loved reading this article! I completely agree that listing calories is an example of soft maternalism, because I frequently feel guilty ordering high calorie food if I see the count on the menu. Also, it is evident that fast food restaurants such as McDonalds might not want to post calories, in fear that it would discourage customers from ordering their food. I recently wound up at a McDonalds and realized they actually do post calories, even though the calorie counts are embarrassingly high. However, when they decided to begin posting calories, they added multiple healthier options to the menu in order to not turn customers away completely.
    Regarding autonomous decision making, I think posting calories does not interfere or show any form of forced paternalism. If anything, there may be a bit of libertarian paternalism, because the calorie count hopes to guide people in the right direction when it comes to eating healthier options; however, no one can say, “no you cannot order that.” Clearly, nothing is coercive and all the factual information is there to benefit the customers.

    Works Cited:
    Melnick, Meredith. “McDonald’s Adds Calorie Counts To Menus: But Will It Work?” The Huffington Post., 14 Sept. 2012. Web. 01 Apr. 2014. .

  4. Like everyone else, I really liked your article and I completely agree with you. I do not see how making the consumer aware of the facts is unethical. In fact, I believe that it is unethical to hide the nutritional facts of the meal. Let’s be real. Everyone knows that fast food is unhealthy, but people still go to fast food restaurants. And if the consumer is already at the restaurant, it is not like the calorie count is going to dissuade them from purchasing a meal. I think that the calorie count just provides the consumer with information that they were probably already wondering in their head. Furthermore, I believe that calorie count should be included on ALL menus at ALL restaurants no matter how fancy the restaurant is. I believe that we need to be aware of what we are eating on a daily basis and it is very difficult to do so when eating out. I find this particularly difficult since college students, graduate students, and time-demanding professional jobs often do not allow for access or time to cook and thus those people eat at restaurants more often and ultimately put them at a higher risk for obesity.

  5. I certainly agree with your stance on this topic. When it comes to fast food establishments especially, a lack of nutritional information results in a sort of blissful ignorance. Without the information right in front of someone about how unhealthy something is, said person is much more likely to consume that product. People like to pretend the things they eat have no ill effects especially when that information isn’t readily available. Because of this tendency that people have, I think putting calorie counts on menus is certainly justifiable. It helps people overcome their blissful ignorance and make choices that are better informed.

  6. I agree with you when you say that calorie counts at restaurants are justifiable. Consumers should definitely know what they are consuming in order to be able to make healthier choices. However, calorie count is not everything. I think it is more important to mention the ingredients in each meal rather than simply stating the calories because something that is a lot of calories can be much healthier than something with fewer calories. For example, eating a big salad as a meal has many more calories than eating a cup of ice cream or one donut, but eating the salad is clearly “healthier” for our bodies. Therefore, though calorie count is a step, I don’t think it makes as big of a difference as the mentioning of the ingredients in the specific meal. Maybe one day!

  7. I totally agree with you that by showing calorie values is ethical and that there’s no loss of autonomy. Personally, I believe that all food should have calorie values on them, because they give the consumers information of what they are eating and that it is up to the consumers’ choices to ignore it or not. The values are just an additional information about the food, just like the ingredient sections of the food. For example, a person might buy a pack of candy knowing that it is made up of unhealthy ingredients like sugar and artificial food colorings, but it is still up to his choice to consume it. This is also the same case for calories. Therefore consumers should have the rights to know what they are eating, since having healthy diet can significantly affect health but it all depends on the consumers if they want to read those ingredients or calories.

  8. I think it is important to note that the question of justifying “promote(ing) a person’s own health or well-being, if they do not want intervention” is different from the question of how it is done (the type of, or level of coercion). Additionally, the fact that people do not understand, or are “too busy” to change to a healthier choice, shows that while the informative initiatives restaurants are using may help some, they are not effective enough for the public. This calls for education outside the restaurant , not just a flood of data on a menu. This is something that behavioral scientists andpeople in the field of public health can help with!

  9. I, like seemingly everyone else, completely agree with your analysis of the article. There is no logical justification for “hiding” the calories from the consumer. I remember reading an article recently which is vaguely related to this topic which talked about salt/pepper being available at each table in a restaurant. A Boston Market in New York, stop providing salt at each table. The idea behind this was two-fold. First, from a business stand point, it is cheaper not to provide that much salt upfront. The main idea was that when people see a salt shaker, they immediately add salt to what they’re eating, without even tasting the food first. This is clearly detrimental, especially to people who have high blood pressure. I, myself, am guilty of adding seasoning to the fries I get prior to tasting them. Do you think not having the salt within arms reach would have an immense impact?

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