Do Calorie Counts Help?

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July 27, 2011 by Danielle

If you live in New York City or have visited a restaurant there since 2008, you’ve probably seen the calorie counts that are listed next to menu items, which are required by law. Personally, I really like having this information out in the open-not because I’m an insane calorie counter, but having the numbers next to the menu items does make me think twice before I order.

Restaurant calorie counts-do they help? image via candytocarrots.wordpress.com

Yesterday, New York City’s office of science and policy and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released an interesting study that examined whether consumers are actually using the menu item calorie counts when making meal time decisions. The study looked at 11 chain restaurants and examined the purchasing patterns of 16,000 consumers and interviewed them about their choices before the law passed and then again in 2009.

Although there was no significant change in the amount of calories ordered, researchers did find that customers ordered fewer calories at three restaurants, Au Bon Pain (44 fewer calories consumed), KFC (80 fewer calories consumed) and McDonald’s (59 fewer calories consumed). At about the same time these restaurants were required to list calorie counts, they also started to offer healthier menu items, like salads. Even more interesting, women and people in wealthier neighborhoods were most likely to use the calorie counts, while young people were least likely to use them.

I think menu calorie counts are a great tool for those who are watching their calorie intake while eating out. On the other hand, as many of you saw last week, calorie counts at many restaurants can vary greatly from the actual caloric content of foods. Moreover, as someone in this USA Today article aptly pointed out, calorie counts can only act as a loose nutritional guideline since some foods, like nuts, are calorie dense, but have high nutritional content.

Either way, I think transparency from the restaurant industry is a step in the right direction and it will help people make better nutritional decisions when eating out or at the very least make them think twice about what they’re eating. In the end though, it’s up to the consumer as to whether or not they want to pay attention to the information that is provided.

Do you use calorie counts as a guideline when you eat out? Does it affect what you order? Do you wish more restaurants would list their calorie counts on menus? If menu item calorie counts aren’t available where you live, how do you make smart choices when eating out?

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