When a study on New Yorkers’ eating habits was released last week, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, city health officials and the report’s authors focused on what appeared to be a triumph of government policy: After the city began requiring restaurant chains to post calories, customers ordered lighter food.
But the study also revealed a stronger trend, one that speaks to the weight of human nature: around Thanksgiving and Christmas, New Yorkers seemed to lose all control. Statistically speaking, they pigged out.
The gluttony response detected by the study, which looked only at what New Yorkers were buying from Starbucks, may not surprise people who have eaten their way through Thanksgiving dinners and multiple office parties.
Then there was the New Year’s effect: While the average customer did buy lighter food from Starbucks after the calorie posting law took effect on April 1, 2008, the calorie drop was even greater right after Jan. 1, 2009.
To those with a more psychological than statistical bent, like weight-loss specialists, food industry analysts and, yes, the Starbucks customers who are the guinea pigs in all this, the study sums up the resilience of the human spirit in the face of good government, the persistent urge to eat, drink and be merry, to make New Year’s resolutions and then break them with impunity, and to go on yo-yo diets, despite the best-laid plans of the nanny state.
NPD Group, a consumer marketing research company, who has been watching the way people eat for 30 years. “If we did what we say we do, we’d be a thin nation. We like food, and food has a place in our lives at different times in our lives.”
As reliable as, well, winter, spring, summer and fall, the eating season begins at Halloween (soup consumption soars in the fall) and peaks around New Year’s, Mr. Balzer said. The dieting season, he said, begins “sometime after the Super Bowl, and they keep making the Super Bowl later and later,” but people still indulge in chocolate for Valentine’s Day and begin seriously cutting calories only in March, as they contemplate stripping down for summer and beachwear. (The study, conducted by Stanford University researchers, showed the calorie drop occurring before the Super Bowl, suggesting that Starbucks customers do not set their body clocks by the football calendar.)
Starbucks gave the researchers access to millions of receipts encompassing every transaction in New York, Boston and Philadelphia from Jan. 1, 2008, to Feb. 28, 2009.
Before the law took effect, customers buying sandwiches, muffins or other snacks from one of New York City’s 222 Starbucks shops ordered items with roughly the same number of calories as did Starbucks customers in Boston and Philadelphia.
After the law took effect, New York customers ordered 14 percent fewer calories from food than before — either by buying less food or lower-calorie food — and came in below Boston and Philadelphia, where there was no calorie posting. (There was no appreciable reduction in calories from lattes, caramel macchiatos and other drinks, the core of Starbucks’s business. Over all, the average New York customer walked away from the counter with 6 percent fewer calories than before.)
As the year went on, New Yorkers gradually began ordering higher-calorie foods but remained below the other two cities, peaking around Thanksgiving and Christmas. Around Christmas and New Year’s, New Yorkers were once again buying Starbucks food with as many calories as were Philadelphians or Bostonians.
“One interpretation is that it’s the holidays, so you cut yourself some slack and you don’t really worry about it,” said Alan Sorensen, an associate professor of economics and strategic management at Stanford who was a co-author of the study. “Another, given our study design, could be that you just get a different type of customer during the holidays, but I don’t think that’s the explanation. It’s more likely something about consumer psychology.”
To show how ingrained eating habits were, one of his Stanford co-authors, Phillip Leslie, suggested putting the word “calories” into Google Trends, which tracks the words people enter in Google’s search field. Up popped year after year of graphs that looked a lot like the one in the Starbucks study.
“I think it’s hilarious,” Dr. Leslie said. Mr. Balzer, the marketing analyst, noted that similar graphs result from search terms like crockpot, soup and especially recipes.
That pattern can have a long-term impact, said Dr. Marina Kurian, medical director of the New York University program for surgical weight loss. Over the course of a year, she said, people typically gain a pound, despite dieting, and over a decade, that adds up to 10 unwanted pounds.
“We think, maybe wrongly, that we’re going to lose that weight gain by dieting in the new year,” she said.
Starbucks, too, is aware of seasonal imperatives, and so it offers the Pumpkin Spice Latte in the fall, Cranberry Bliss Bar in December and 90-calorie beverages in January, “because customers are thinking about getting the new year off to a good start,” said Sanja Gould, a spokeswoman.
Some customers interviewed at the Starbucks at Broadway and West 95th Street in Manhattan this week said that the calorie postings had changed their buying habits. Others were unmoved.
“Aren’t the holidays like a good way to celebrate gluttony?” asked Erich Fuchs, a consultant to nonprofit groups, sipping a coffee, black, insouciantly. He said he bought Starbucks scones for his partner, but preferred home cooking for himself, and never worried about calorie counts, only portion size.
A friend sitting across from him, Patrick Stucky, nursed a tea and said he never made New Year’s resolutions, explaining, “I think I’m perfect the way I am.”