Restaurant Calorie Counts: Will They Change the Way You Order?

Menu labeling won’t end epidemic obesity, but it might affect your choices

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I remember taking a trip to visit relatives in California, and going out to breakfast at a popular chain restaurant. I was in the mood for pancakes. But when I opened my menu, I was hit smack between the eyes—by the calorie count listed next to my breakfast of choice.

Melinda Johnson
Melinda Johnson
Being a registered dietitian, you'd think I wouldn't be shocked by the amount of calories in an order of blueberry pancakes. But I wasn't wearing my work hat when I sat down to breakfast, and something about that high number in black and white made me cringe. I'm not a calorie-counter to begin with, and I have no problem indulging in my favorite treats now and then. Still, seeing that number did make me reconsider breakfast. All of the sudden, my "splurge" seemed more extravagant, and less worth it. I changed my mind about what to order, and decided on something a bit more sensible. In short, the restaurant labeling did the job it was meant to do—it swayed the behavior of a consumer toward a healthier choice.

Now that restaurant nutrition labeling is more commonplace (thanks to federal guidelines), a few research studies have set out to examine whether or not it's making a difference. The results so far have been unimpressive: Some studies have shown a modest change in some consumers' food purchases, and others have shown no change at all. One alarming report even showed that some people on a tight budget were purposefully choosing the highest-calorie item when calories were on the menu, so they could get more "bang for the buck."

A recent study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics revealed that restaurant nutrition labeling may even lead to makovers of the menu offerings themselves. This study found that restaurants in King County, Wash., were offering entrées with fewer calories, and less saturated fat and sodium 18 months after they were mandated to post these amounts on their menu. It seems that having to print the bottom line was motivation for these restaurants to improve the nutrition profile of their food. However, their entrée tweaks were modest and the total amounts remained quite high.

Menu labeling can be expensive for restaurant owners to implement; they have to pay to have their food analyzed and to have new menu boards made. All those numbers can clutter up the menu and are sometimes too confusing to be helpful. Take the law as it applies to pizza: As it stands now, restaurants will have to post calorie counts for the entire pizza, even though most people don't actually eat the whole pie. And consider how many calorie variations you can get depending on the toppings you choose. It simply wouldn't be possible to list all of these on a menu board.

Restaurant nutrition labeling isn't our magic bullet to end obesity. On a public health scale, it may not even budge the overall number of people who are overweight in this country. But it's information worth having. While not everyone will use those numbers (or use them appropriately), they're still very helpful—and, dare I say, eye-opening—to the health-conscious patron.

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Melinda Johnson, MS, RD, is Director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics and lecturer for the Nutrition Program at Arizona State University, and a Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaRD.