Do calorie counts on menus lead to healthier choices?

By • Published: November 2nd, 2011
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Nationwide, there’s a big push for healthier eating habits, and with good reason. Nearly 34 percent of American adults are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To help battle the bulge, some cities and states have adopted laws requiring chain restaurants to post calorie counts for foods where customers can see them easily … right on the menu. The idea is to help diners monitor their calorie intake when eating out, and hopefully, prompt healthier choices. New York City passed a law like this in 2009.

Researchers writing in the British Medical Journal recently published their findings on the law’s effectiveness. Their study compared the average number of calories customers purchased at a selection of the city’s fast food joints and coffee shops before and shortly after the law took effect.

Results were mixed. Overall, posted calorie information didn’t lead to a change in the average number of calories people ate. But researchers did see reductions at three fast-food chains in the Big Apple. And one in six fast food customers said calorie counts affected their choices. These folks ordered about 11 percent fewer calories on average than did other customers. That may not seem like a big difference, but it could add up quickly for people who eat lots of fast food.

Some companies included in the study changed their menus between survey periods, introducing more low-calorie dishes. These changes likely played a role in reduced-calorie purchases at some chains. But the study authors say that doesn’t skew their findings. Prompting restaurants to offer lower-calorie foods is one way these laws could lead to healthier diets.

Next year, a law requiring calorie counts on menus nationwide will take effect. Let’s hope Americans take heed. There’s nothing good about a 34 percent obesity rate.