Who can forget Subway’s spokesman, Jared, who lost all of that weight by walking everyday to Subway in order to eat a vegetable sub for his lunch?
His story revolutionized Subway’s image, making it seem like a healthy alternative to McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants.
But is it really that much healthier or is it just our perception that has changed?
Brian Wansink, PhD, the Director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell, has studied how environmental cues influence what we eat.
One of his more than 700 food studies includes the “McSubway” study, which took a look at eating habits when people perceived food to be healthy (at Subway) vs. unhealthy (at McDonald’s).
In this study, Wansink and his colleagues interviewed 250 lunch goers each from Subway and McDonald’s.
They asked survey participants what they had eaten and how many calories they thought was in their lunch.
The average McDonald’s patron thought they had eaten only 876, when in actuality they had eaten 1,093 (25% more).
When asked if they looked for nutritional information when ordering, only 57 were able to recount any nutritional information for the food. The majority didn’t feel that knowing the nutritional content would affect their choice of lunches.
Now onto the Subway crowd.
Of the Subway crowd, 157 could answer questions about the nutritional content of the food. The general impression among the 250 patrons was that the food was healthy, creating a kind of “halo effect” that appeared to encompass all of the food at Subway, not just the healthy options.
A majority of the patrons had added things like cheese, bacon, mayo, sodas, and chips to their orders, thus partially negating their healthier choice.
The Subway patrons had eaten on average 644 calories, though they estimated it to be 34% less (495 calories).
What did Wansink conclude from this study?
While the Subway lunch was less caloric than the McDonald’s one overall, the McDonald’s crowd expected the food to have more calories and so estimated more accurately.
This has huge ramifications when trying to budget our calories throughout the day.
When I think that my lunch was only 495 calories, I may eat one more of those wonderful rosemary-lemon sugar cookies in my pantry. But if my lunch was in fact 644 calories, I will have overeaten that day.
And if I did this on a continual basis, I’d gain 15 pounds that year simply from my own miscalculations.
I was so intrigued by Dr. Wansink’s experiments that I asked him to join us in our Mind-Body Medicine teleseminar series.
Do your patients’ perception of whether food is healthy influence their caloric consumption? Please leave a comment below.
Meanwhile, take a look at your copy of Joy of Cooking. Brian found some interesting information that we’ll tell you about in our next post.