Calorie counts displayed on menus does little to encourage healthier eating, study says

Jay Petrillo's picture

The last time you opened a menu at a restaurant, did you see any calorie information next to each meal option? If so, did it mean anything to you? A new study shows that for most of us, those little numbers means zilch.

Take out, dining out, eating out. On average, Americans choose to eat one out of every five meals in a restaurant or commercial setting. Another telling statistic – One out of every three Americans are overweight. The convenience of fast food, whether it comes out of a window or a restaurant kitchen, has turned us into a nation that struggles with obesity.

One solution, proposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and in place for many years now, was for restaurants to list the calorie content directly on their menus. The hope was that consumers would use this information to make more informed choices.

Well, it hasn’t happened.

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh completed a recent study and found that adding calorie information to menus has done little to help consumers opt for healthier fare.

The study analyzed 1,121 adults and their lunchtime choices at two McDonald’s restaurants in New York City. Individuals were broken into groups, with each group presented with a lunchtime menu that had different caloric information.

One group’s menu showed the FDA recommended daily calorie intake for an adult man or woman, another group’s menu displayed the recommended per-meal calorie intake and the third group’s menu showed no additional information. Researchers were hopeful that they could discern the potential interaction between pre-existing menu labeling and the addition of recommended caloric intake information.

What the study actually showed, however, was that there was no change in each group’s choice of meal. Relatively few individuals opted for a lighter lunch after learning of their personal caloric limit or the amount of calories in their meal.

“There have been high hopes that menu labeling could be a key tool to help combat high obesity levels in this country, and many people do appreciate having that information available. Unfortunately, this approach doesn't appear to be helping to reduce consumption very much, even when we give consumers what policymakers thought might help: some guidance for how many calories they should be eating,” said the study's lead author Julie Downs, associate research professor of social and decision sciences in CMU's Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences in a July 18 press release.

“People who count calories know that this is a pretty labor-intensive exercise,” Downs said. “Making the information available on menus may have other beneficial effects, such as motivating restaurants to change their formulations. But it may be unrealistic to expect many consumers to keep such close, numeric track of their food intake by using the labels directly.”

My first thought on this study was – Why McDonald’s? Individuals who choose to eat at fast food restaurants know what they are getting into. While the McDonald’s and Burger Kings of the world have worked hard at offering healthier menu choices, they are still the calorie-laden burger joints that have served “billions.” Individuals who are conscious of their health generally do not frequent fast food restaurants. In my opinion, this study was set up to fail from the get-go.

If you are one who takes a hard look at the amount of calories on the menu and factors that into your decision, then I applaud you. For the rest of us, this study evidently shows the only numbers that mean anything on a menu are the ones with a “$” in front of them.

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