Center for Science in the Public Interest

Kennon-Green & Co. Fiduciary Financial Advisor, Wealth Management, Global Value Investing

The average healthy adult should eat roughly 2,000 calories per day to maintain a recommended weight.  In the United States, all else equal, the average male, at 5’8″, should weigh between 140 pounds and 172 pounds.  The average female, at 5’4″, should weigh between 114 pounds and 151 pounds.

In study after study, the typical person underestimates the number of calories they eat in a day, often by a significant amount.  This propensity to miscalculate creates some unpleasant non-intended consequences.  For example, it’s long been known that by putting “low fat” on a package, consumers eat more calories worth of the product in a single setting, meaning it makes them fatter than the real stuff, which they probably would have enjoyed more.  Likewise, simply adding fruit to the top of a dessert causes people to reduce their caloric estimation by several hundred calories than the identical dessert without the fruit.  That is, a piece of cheesecake was estimated at x calories, but adding peaches or cherries to it caused people to estimate a significant reduction in x despite it having more calories under an intuitive assumption that fruit is healthy.

[mainbodyad]The New York Times decided to create a visual guide to drive the point home, allowing readers to see exactly what 2,000 calories looks like based upon where you eat; to show people food prepared from fresh ingredients at home (as opposed to prepackaged, processed food) is often more filling, tastier, and less calorie intensive than food served at restaurants and quick service locations.  You need to go look at it right now because it’s eye-opening.  You can click this link.

Some of it is ridiculous – who regularly goes to McDonald’s and orders a fried chicken sandwich, french fry, Coke, and McFlurry to the point they’d need to worry about the calorie content of that meal?  But the point still stands.  What gets me is the ridiculousness of the sit-down places, which are worse than the fast food joints.  The Center for Science in the Public Interest posted rankings and images of gut-busting dishes from major restaurant chains.  Consider this single piece of Chocolate Zuccotto Cake from Maggiano’s Little Italy.  It is equivalent to an entire eight-serving Entenmann’s Chocolate Fudge Cake.  This one slice has 1,820 worth of calories (leaving you almost nothing for the rest of the day unless you want to gain weight), 3 days’ worth of saturated fat, and four days’ worth of added sugar according to CSPI.  Most consumers have no idea.  They don’t understand unless they skip breakfast, lunch, and dinner, they shouldn’t be eating this in most cases.

Center for Science in the Public InterestHomemade food is different.  My own recipe posts can be used as evidence.  Consider that calorie bomb of a pie I made a couple of weeks ago.  The caramel pecan apple pie with homemade crust, drizzled in butter, cinnamon, sugar, and other goodness?  A single slice of it contained only 608 calories and I found that incredibly high.  I guarantee it is exponentially better, too.  Our cinnamon roll recipe?  Not even close.  Our pineapple upside down cake?  Please.  We use food scales and spreadsheets to figure out exactly what a recipe will do to us on a per serving basis, coupling it with the Plan to Eat software and MyFitnessPal.

[mainbodyad]In fact, I find it hard to physically understand how it is even possible to get that many calories in a serving and I believe in the old school methods – butter, heavy cream, lard.  Think about the Cheesecake Factory.  As you’ll see in that New York Times special, some of their dishes were more than 2,400 calories!  The closest I’ve ever come to anything like that was a 1,500+ calorie per serving Italian sausage and cream sauce recipe drizzled over handmade ricotta stuffed ravioli.  If you have a small breakfast, with a light lunch, it’s easy to fit into your 2,000 calorie daily allotment.  It’s so rich, and so extreme, you won’t want to eat anything else for twelve hours after you’ve had it.

Part of me wonders if it’s related to the inability of most people to make accurate mathematical estimates unless they’ve been trained to the contrary.  I was reading something the other day that said most men and women couldn’t answer the question, “What is a million times a billion?” because the brain didn’t evolve to handle large numbers.  Or the fact that only half of the graduates of Harvard, Princeton, and MIT could answer the simple logic problem, which we’ve talked about in the past:

A bat and ball cost $1.10.
The bat costs one dollar more than the ball.
How much does the bat cost?

They immediately respond with “$1.00”, which is wrong.  Worse, they don’t invert the math and check it, which is the easiest way to verify your math on something like this unless you can do algebra in your head (e.g., If the bat costs $1.00, then the ball would have to cost $0.10 to get to the total of $1.10.  That would mean the bat ($1.00) is only $0.90 more than ball ($0.10).  Therefore, it cannot be the correct response because the bat has to be $1.00 more than the ball, not $0.90 more than the ball).

Or the fact people think of $299 being distinctly cheaper than $300.  They deny it, but it works.  That’s why retails keep up the practice.

As it pertains to food, this math deficiency is best illustrated in a program that airs in the United Kingdom called “Secret Eaters”.  The episodes are on YouTube.  People swear up and down they aren’t exceeding 2,000 calories a day – they try to estimate the numbers in their head – so the show hires surveillance teams to spy on them, dig through their trash, record their kitchens, follow them to work, and then, at the end of the period, bring them to a vault that shows them exactly how much they ate.  When they see the actual numbers, the real calorie information and that it inevitably explains why they are the weight they are, a lot of them are in complete disbelief.  It’s a mental model extravaganza so watch it if you like studying them.

It makes me realize how much I love math.  It is such a wonderful tool for measuring and managing almost any area of your life.

And while we’re on the topic, can I just ask you Brits what is up with the way you name television shows?  A related show about morbid obesity is called … wait for it … Fat Doctor.  You literally named a show “Fat Doctor”.  It’s so ridiculously blunt it cracks me up because I can’t imagine anything ever being called that in the United States.  It’d be shut down in a week due to protests.  Instead, we’d call it something like, “Body Transformation” or “Life Coach: Weight Edition”.  (Not to make light of the serious topic – some of the episodes are heartbreaking.  I happened to see it once while I was in the gym and I cannot imagine being unable to get out of your bed or leave your home.)

Maybe that word isn’t a stigmatized in the U.K.?  I haven’t heard anyone called fat in the U.S. in probably ten or fifteen years.  Then again, you all refer to pension retirement systems as “schemes”, whereas on this side of the pond, that sounds like a plan hatched by Doctor Evil.

If you decide to watch the latter show, be prepared for conflicting emotions.  The people who really want it get their life in order, the surgery helps them, and they go on to be happy and fulfilled in many cases.  In others, some of the people who are 600, 700, 800+ pounds exhibit a phenomenon known as “learned helplessness”.  One woman I watched, who was given only a few years to live, was gifted what amount to a free medical pass for weight reduction surgery if she could just get below a certain threshold, paid for (if I recall correctly) by the British taxpayer.  Instead, she had her husband sneak food into her (and he did it!), so she never lost any weight despite being in a controlled life-or-death hospital situation.  You can tell the doctors are beyond exasperated.  This woman is going to die.  They keep telling her she is going to die.  Her heart can’t take it much longer.  I can’t help but think when you get to that level, it’s a prolonged way to commit suicide.

I’m not sure how someone could do that to their significant other … you know they’re facing the end of their days unless you change, yet you keep giving them the thing causing their death and misery?  They are so big they can’t leave and get it without you; can’t go to the park; can’t go out to a restaurant; can’t drive themselves around in some cases.  You’re just as, if not more, guilty.  What motivates a person to make such a horrific decision, taking part in the destruction of the person they are supposed to love most?  I understand not being able to do anything when someone is still self-sufficient – obesity has hit part of my own family hard – but at the point someone relies on you to bring them food because they are bedridden, you can just say “No”.  What are they going to do about it?  They physically can’t get up, meaning they can’t go shopping for themselves.  That’s a game changer.