Calorie Counts on Restaurant Menus as Part of Health Reform

Legislation includes menu calorie counts, but don’t count on them to solve the obesity problem.

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Coming to chain restaurants nationwide, courtesy of Congress (or at least 219 House Democrats): calorie counts on menus and menu boards. Health reform legislation passed yesterday includes provisions to require restaurants with more than 20 outlets to post calorie information for all of their regular menu items. 

[Here are 10 healthful snacks that won't break the calorie bank.] 

Whether the move, which some cities have already instituted, will actually work to change purchases or reduce waistlines is still a matter of debate. A working paper released in January by the Stanford Graduate School of Business looked at Starbucks. It found that the calorie posting mandated in New York City was linked with a 6 percent reduction in calories per transaction—though beverage purchases weren't affected. A study conducted by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene also found an impact; it said that people who saw the posted calories and used the information in their purchasing decisions "consumed 152 fewer calories at hamburger chains and 73 fewer calories at sandwich shops compared with everyone else," wrote USA Today. (It's worth noting that it was the city government that mandated the calorie postings in New York.) 

But in early October, researchers found that the new menu rules weren't effective in the neighborhoods with high rates of obesity. There was a big discrepancy in what people said (that they purchased lower-calorie foods) and what they did (they actually bought more calories than did the average customer before the law was implemented).

Meantime, some chains announced in advance of health reform passage that they would post calories. Panera Bread made the move earlier this month, and Yum Brands, which owns KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, said back in 2008 that it would do the same. 

Simply because it's such a complex problem, no single move, including calorie counts, is likely to do much on its own to budge obesity rates. But working with, forcing, or cajoling the food and grocery store industries to make changes seems to be the current trend. Enlisting their help makes sense, according to a food industry exec I interviewed last month

[Consider 6 ways restaurants could push good health.]