An Alternative to Calorie Labels

February 8, 2012 BY danariely

We just published a new paper:

A top cause of preventable death, obesity is a growing threat to an able-bodied, functioning society. Simply put, overeating is one of the biggest contributions to the obesity epidemic, and despite widespread efforts to promote health education, there may be better ways to combat this problem than by giving people nutritional information and relying on them to use that information to make wise choices. After all, we live in a country where chef Jamie Oliver’s shocking chicken nugget demonstration was absolutely no deterrent to the appeal of a fried blend of gooey chicken carcass.

If even this shocking intervention had no effect, we may need to do more than post calorie labels, a movement that (albeit well-intended) has seen limited success (see 1,2,3). Traditionally, such interventions are more successful at changing attitudes than actual behaviors, and when it comes to health — attitudes and behaviors don’t always go hand in hand.

Of course, we know that just thinking about exercise and eating healthy will not keep us healthy – we can’t lose weight by intending to use the treadmill. We need to put on our gym shorts and start jogging. With food, we can start by simply eating less.

Janet Schwartz and I, along with Jason Riis and Brian Elbel, tested out an alternative to calorie labeling – merely asking customers at a fast food restaurant (with and without a small incentive) if they would like to downsize their side dishes (by taking a half portion of an excessively large high-carbohydrate side dish). We carried out this intervention before and after calorie labels were put in place, and found that while calorie labels had no effect on the number of calories consumed, the offer to downsize did! As much as a third of the customers who were given the offer decided to take less food (compared to ~1% who asked to downsize on their own) and consequently ate less (yes, we even weighed their leftovers), showing that a simple offer to downsize can go a long way toward encouraging a healthier diet.

The conclusion:  Offering people a chance to exercise self control can be effective, but we need to stop people, slow them down and offer them to take a better path at the moment when they are placing their order.



(1) Downs JS, Loewenstein G, & Wisdom J. (2009). The psychology of food consumption: strategies for promoting healthier food choices, American Economic Review, 99(2), 1-10.

(2) Elbel B, Kersh R, Brescoll V, & Dixon LB. (2009). Calorie labeling and food choices: A first look at the effects on low-income people in New York City, Health Affairs, 28(6), 1110-21.

(3) Bollinger B., Leslie P. & Sorensen AT. (forthcoming). Calorie Posting in Chain Restaurants. AEJ: Economic Policy.