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February 25, 2016

Calorie labeling more useful than people think, says study

Overweight, obese people benefit from mandatory labels even when there's no effect on the general population

Previous studies have dismissed the effects of mandatory calorie labeling in restaurants, finding that it did not affect most people's eating habits. However, new research suggests that those labels really are helpful for those who need to lose weight the most.

A paper published this month in the National Bureau of Economic Research examined what happened to the average body mass index of people who lived in areas that passed laws requiring calorie labels on food, based on national survey data. Would people make healthier choices and lose weight if they knew exactly how many calories they were putting into their body?

The answer appears to be "no," if you look at the whole population. But when researchers looked specifically at people who are overweight or obese, they found that the labels had a large, positive impact.

"These results suggest that overweight and obese individuals are especially sensitive to relevant information," wrote study authors Partha Deb and Carmen Vargas of Hunter College.

Statistically significant effects were found for men in every weight category, whether it was healthy weight, overweight or obese. However, obese men showed the greatest losses in body mass index.

The results for women were more complex. Overweight women lost a statistically significant amount of weight, but obese women and healthy-weight women did not. The reason why calorie labels had this Goldilocks effect, working only for women in the middle category, was not clear.

In addition, people who lost weight were more likely to have only a high school-level education.

"It’s a terrific story: The people who need to lose weight are losing weight, and the people who are least likely to know about caloric content are learning about it," commented Harvard professor Cass Sunstein, who was not involved in the study, in a column for Bloomberg.

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