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People Underestimate Calories in Healthy Restaurants

My good friend Dr. Brian Wansink at Cornell University conducted a very interesting study to understand how consumers respond to restaurants based on whether they are perceived as healthy or unhealthy. Brian's research team interviewed people who had just come out of two different restaurants. In one case customers had just eaten at McDonalds, a restaurant perceived to be less healthy. In the second case customers had just eaten in Subway, a restaurant perceived to be healthier. In each case researchers asked customers to estimate how many calories they had eaten at the restaurants. They found that people tended to underestimate the number of calories they ate at Subway and to overestimate the number of calories they ate at McDonald's.

In a second experiment they gave people a coupon for either a free Big Mac (600 calories) at McDonald's or a free BMT sandwich at Subway (900). When they redeemed the free coupon they were asked if they wanted to order a drink or cookie with their sandwich. Those with the free Subway coupon were more likely to order a large drink, less likely to order diet soda and more likely to order a cookie. Thus, people ate far more calories at Subway (1011 calories) than McDonald's (648 calories).

Brian interpreted this as showing that people tend to think they get healthier meals than they really do at restaurants perceived to be healthy and fewer calories than they actually get at restaurants perceived to be less healthy. All in all this means that there are many things that influence how much we eat other than how hungry we are. The take away message is that you have to be careful not to overeat, especially in restaurants you perceive to be healthy.


Adapted by Editorial Department, January 2008
Last update, August 2008



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