Study: Calorie Counts on Menus Affect Food Choices

August 6, 2022

Dining out can be challenging for people trying to manage their weight since restaurants frequently serve portion sizes that are bigger than what you may require. According to a study published in JAMA Network Open, ordering menu items that have been added recently may be a smart strategy if you're thinking about how to influence your weight management goals. According to new research, chain restaurants' menu items added after 2018 have 25% fewer calories than those on the menus before calorie labeling regulations.

About the Study

More than 35,000 menu items from 59 major U.S. chain restaurants that were sold between 2012 and 2019 were examined by researchers for their calorie content. This monitoring included a significant change to all menus stating calorie counts, a labeling law that became effective in 2018.

"This finding suggests that the labeling law is potentially leading to consumers having more lower-calorie options," says lead researcher Anna Grummon, PhD, a research fellow in nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. "These labels are giving consumers information that was not easy to access before the law. That helps them decide how they want to use that information to meet their health goals."

But Do They Work?

Having more options with fewer calories is beneficial, but do customers choose such options over those with higher calories? A 2018 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research analyzing choices from more than 5,000 diners found that those whose menus listed calories ordered meals with 3% fewer calories—about 45 calories less—than those whose menus did not. Diners with the information tended to order fewer calories in their appetizer and entree courses compared to those without caloric information.

An further investigation that was conducted over the period of three years and reported in the 2019 issue of the journal BMJ examined the impact of labeling on three separate restaurant chains in Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi. Researchers discovered a temporary decrease in calorie consumption—of roughly 60 calories per order—after labeling was introduced. One challenge in simply providing diners with calorie numbers is that people may underestimate how many calories they consume daily and how many they burn through exercise, according to some research. For instance, a study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found a wide range of under and overestimation, with some participants believing they'd burned up to 72 percent more calories during exercise.

Non-Calorie Approach

According to dietitian Patricia Bannan, RDN, author of From Burnout to Balance, eating better when dining out can include a variety of tactics, whether you want to pay attention to calories or not. She recommends strategies like:

  • Have a veggie-heavy appetizer
  • Start with a vegetable soup or tossed salad for a nutrient boost
  • Swap out less-nutritious options for more vegetables
  • Ask for vegetables to be steamed instead of tossed in butter or oil
  • Opt for a protein-rich entree like salmon, tofu, or roasted chicken, to feel full for longer
  • Split a dessert, since you may be satisfied after just a few bites

Make fun the absolute top priority, advises Bannan. You can feel less enthused about eating out generally if you choose a meal that you don't truly want solely because of the calorie count on the menu.

"At the end of the day, one meal isn't going to derail your health goals," she notes. "Just as one healthy meal isn't going to instantly make you healthier, one indulgent meal isn't going to make you unhealthy. It's the steps and strategies you implement daily that add up to a big difference in your overall health."

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