Food for Thought (only 253 calories)

I enjoyed the discussion in class about the effects of calorie-counting labels on consumers, so I decided to go off on a bit of a tangent.

Someone compared this to the warnings on cigarette labels and questioned their effectiveness. I remembered hearing something about this, so I tracked that research down. Geoff Fong, a psychologist at the University of Waterloo (my alma matar. Wot!), is head of a research group called ITC (International Tobacco Control Policy Evaluation Project). I got to go to a lecture by him once, and it really is fascinating stuff. ITC’s research compares anti-smoking campaigns on a worldwide level. Hit the link to learn more, but a headline is that pictorial warnings on cigarette labels seem to be more effective than text-only warnings (ITC Project. (March 2012). Health Warnings on Tobacco Packages: ITC Cross-Country Comparison Report. University of Waterloo, ON, Can).

This is interesting as it suggests labels with pictorial warnings may be more effective than a calorie-count or warning on junk food packages. There was an article in The Globe and Mail about that this morning, actually: see here. Apparently, the Ontario Medical Association is recommending pictures on food labels.

Would a picture of fatty deposits be more effective in preventing people from buying junk food?




5 thoughts on “Food for Thought (only 253 calories)

  1. Brett Phillipson

    If anything, I think images on food packaging might serve as an even greater deterrent than images on tobacco project, given the effect that graphic/generally gross images tend to have on people’s appetites.

    I have to say, though, that I am wary of the whole “put calorie counts on everything!” idea. I agree that we as a society have a problem with the amount of unhealthy food we consume (especially packaged/fast food), and that portion sizes are definitely too large – I just don’t know if calories are the best measure. Calorie counting can so easily turn into an obsessive, destructive behaviour. I get that we want to discourage overeating, but is the solution to encourage a different form of unhealthy eating? Wouldn’t we be better served by worrying about things like nutrients rather than calories, and health rather than weight? So often these discussions devolve into fat-shaming under the guise of concern, even though weight is an extremely unreliable measure of health.

    I hope this isn’t a derail; I just find this to be a difficult (albeit very thought-provoking) topic.

  2. emmalb

    I also really enjoyed the discussion of the calorie posting issue today. I am a health conscious type of eater, though I do have cheat days, or weeks depending on stress levels. I also try to avoid eating out as much as possible as I have discovered over the years that it is not only kind of addictive, but also extremely bad for you. Part of me feels it is ridiculous to have restaurants and coffee shops list all the calories in every item, because it can foster very negative self image issues for people already suffering with body issues. However, there needs to be some form of education so that more of North America is aware of just how bad eating out at restaurants and fast food places really are for you.
    I believe that instead of posting all the calories, restaurants should have to reduce their portion sizes to a healthy amount, ideally following the Canadian Diabetes Association Food Guide, which illustrates the proper portion sizes people should be consuming for meals. Fats aren’t always bad for you but it is the quantity that presents the issue. I don’t know about anyone else but when I go out to a restaurant, especially at a chain one, when my meal arrives I’m always taken back by the size but I feel obligated to eat it all as I’m paying for it; leading me to over eat and feel awful. I feel that just posting calories may not be enough, or even the right course of action to promote a healthier nation.

    Emma Blackburn

  3. Jordan

    If they’re going to post images on food package, it had better be extremely tactful. Weight is a sensitive issue in a way that cigarette smoking isn’t, and pictures that are direct or insensitive would get people up in arms.

    I don’t know that pictures are the right approach in the first place. Someone said in class that a number like two thousand calories might not mean anything to the people waiting in line for the popcorn. Often times people don’t know how the food they eat affects them, which numbers to pay attention to on nutrition labels, which foods are especially good, especially bad, and how many grams of fat, fibre, etc, they want to be eating. I can see how images could be useful. There are some pictures on cigarette packages that are horrifyingly gross. Images have a lot of visceral impact. They’re punchy. But those sorts of fear-based policies makes me uncomfortable.

    I think more information about nutrition would serve people better than pictures. Most people are genuinely interested in what “eating healthy” is. In my Grade 9 Health class in Red Deer, we watched a taped from TV documentary about the importance of eating less fats. It’s all stuff we already knew. It told us nothing about what we should be eating or why, what sorts of fats were good, which were bad. I’m still learning a lot about this– and about nutrition in general– as an adult. If I didn’t go vegetarian and have my mother hound me about how I was a scrawny, malnourished vegetarian (“Are you getting enough protein?”), I wouldn’t have started thinking about what I eat in the first place. More, better, and more widely available nutritional information (not on food packages, just in general) would be better than pictures, I think.

  4. jessstarr88

    I read these posts after doing this weeks reading on ethnography, and it made this subject even more interesting to me. Brett makes a really good point about how sensitive a subject weight can be, and I think that putting “warning” images on packages of unhealthy food, or even posting calories could be a slippery slope of making people feel bad about themselves. I would argue that our society and culture is already obsessed with weight and appearance, so like Emma and Jordan, I believe that a more effective strategy would be to focus on health education rather than weight.

    After reading Shaffir and Stebbins’ articles on ethnography I think that this would be a really interesting case to study ethnographically. Obviously living in a world where these calorie signs or warning images were posted all around us would affect us, and we would to some degree be able to see the affects that the were having on the general population. But what if we studied diverse groups of people who certain measures might affect more? It would be interesting to see how people with body image issues or eating disorders (both overeating and undereating) might react to being faced with such information or images every day. Even ethnographically studying the ways that young women react over a period of time to such experiences would be really interesting. I know that there are many ethical factors that would have to be considered in studying such groups of people, but I also think it’s important to find out how minority groups would react to calorie signs, and not just the general public.

    …I’m just trying to put down some ideas about ways that ethnography might offer important insight that cannot be gathered from more quantitative methods, but I’m not sure if this would really qualify as valuable or if it would work. Interesting FOOD for thought anyway!

  5. Milo Anderson

    Speaking of dietary issues and ethnography, there was a very interesting article in the New York Times recently about an island in Greece where people are particularly long-lived, and the efforts of researchers to figure out why:

    Towards the end the author makes what I think are some really good points about the importance of culture in affecting the health of individuals. If you live on a Greek island and everyone around you is growing food in their garden, sleeping late, walking up and down hills every day, etc., it doesn’t require iron discipline to emulate those habits day in and day for decades, which is apparently what it takes to live past 100.

    Memorable quote: “Every one of these factors can be tied to longevity. That’s what the $70 billion diet industry and $20 billion health-club industry do in their efforts to persuade us that if we eat the right food or do the right workout, we’ll be healthier, lose weight and live longer. But these strategies rarely work. Not because they’re wrong-minded: it’s a good idea for people to do any of these healthful activities. The problem is, it’s difficult to change individual behaviors when community behaviors stay the same. In the United States, you can’t go to a movie, walk through the airport or buy cough medicine without being routed through a gantlet of candy bars, salty snacks and sugar-sweetened beverages. The processed-food industry spends more than $4 billion a year tempting us to eat. How do you combat that? Discipline is a good thing, but discipline is a muscle that fatigues. Sooner or later, most people cave in to relentless temptation.”


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