Heart Attack Grill

The Response to Ridiculous Restaurant Food

Ever increasing reliance on restaurant food is high on just about everyone’s list of suspects to blame for rising obesity. But what’s the right response? One answer, from CSPI, is to call out ridiculously unhealthy menu items. CSPI unveiled its latest lineup of absurd entrees last week.

2018 Xtreme Eating Awards

Truly, the winners on this list have no redeeming qualities. For instance, consider the Cheesecake Factory’s breakfast burrito. It delivers 2,750 calories in a soft tortilla. The Factory loads it up with scrambled eggs, bacon, chicken chorizo, cheese, and just about anything else you can imagine.

Now, hard and fast rules on how many calories a person needs are hard to come by. FDA pegs it at 2,000 for women and 2,500 for men. We’ll grant that those numbers are a little shaky. (In fact, we could go on at length about this.) But nonetheless, it’s clear that 2,750 calories in a single entree is absurd. Not to mention irresponsible.

The same goes for all of the items that CSPI is calling out.

Menu Labeling

These Xtreme Eating Awards earn lots of press for CSPI. Jane Brody is on board with a long piece in the New York Times. She sees a triumph for the value of restaurant menu labeling. How would we otherwise know just how bad these menu items are?

She has a point. And she stretches it to say that menu labeling and menu shaming is forcing restaurants to do better. It’s a nice theory, but all we have are anecdotes to support it. Brody lists prior winners of Xtreme Eating Awards that restaurants have slimmed down. The plural of anecdotes is not data.

In fact, data on trends in restaurant portions is sparse and out of date. It would be nice to know that portion sizes declined as menu labeling became more common. But where’s the data?

Beware of Reverse Psychology

The possibility of reactance triggering unintended consequences is worth considering. Humiliating large restaurant businesses might serve a purpose. As Brody notes, McDonald’s is no longer the worst actor on this stage. This fast food icon has been quietly adjusting its menu and business model to buff up its image. Bad PR was a motivator.

However, consumers don’t like getting scolded. And some restaurants will take advantage of this consumer response. The Heart Attack Grill might be an extreme example. But even mainstream restaurants cater to this consumer response. When nudges become shoves, they cease to work. So a bit of caution makes sense.

In the end, Xtreme Eating Awards offer a nice PR gimmick. But to tackle the problem of unhealthy restaurant menus, we’ll need more than gimmicks.

Click here for Brody’s article in the Times and here for more on the awards. For further perspective on restaurant portions, click here.

Heart Attack Grill, photograph © Alexander Blecher / Wikimedia Commons

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September 10, 2018