Amy and I have been dieting--safely and along with a moderate increase in increase--in an attempt to lose some weight. I was pushing 275 in April, and that's not healthy for anyone who's only 5'10, no matter what your bone structure, and I'm currently at about 258-260. One of the tools we've been using it the Lose It! iPhone app, which is basically a calorie counter that credits you for exercise and tells you how many calories you should aim for daily in order to lose to a target weight over the long term. It also gives you numbers for maintaining your weight once you've gotten there.
I bring this up because of this piece from the Freakonomics blog about the NYC initiative to require the posting of calorie amounts for menu items in hopes of raising awareness about healthy eating. The early results are not encouraging for people who were hoping to get people to stop gorging.
We found that 27.7 percent [of people] who saw calorie labeling in New York said the information influenced their choices. ...However, we did not detect a change in calories purchased after the introduction of calorie labeling.Dubner wonders if the nudge is too subtle, and if a something more pushy would be more effective. My guess, in large part because before I started this move to lose weight I had no idea how many calories I was taking in or how many was reasonable, is that people are looking at the options in a vacuum. The numbers aren't having an impact because there's no context for them. A 600 calorie burger doesn't seem so bad until you realize that it's between a third and a quarter of your recommended caloric intake for the day (in my case, if I want to lose a pound and a half a week), and that it'll take you an hour and a half of brisk walking to work it off. The people who came up with the idea are probably so in tune with what they consider a healthy caloric intake that the context is obvious for them--not so much for the rest of us.
The problem is that because bodies are so different from each other, there's no way to put up a table that gets this message across. I'm allowed more calories than Amy according to Lose It! because I've got 5-6 inches (and significantly more poundage) on her, but those numbers go down as I lose weight. Short of an interactive calorie system installed in restaurants, you're not going to be able to put across that kind of personalized information, and so the numbers will continue to exist in a vacuum. And most people won't put them to use.