Are Calorie Counts on Restaurant Menus Making Meals Healthier?

“Much of that, in my mind, is due to the fact that people are familiar with the quick-serve or fast-food restaurants,” Diekman said. “They know what they like. They trust what they order. Therefore, they’re happy with what’s there and they’re going to buy it no matter what the calorie label says.”

But new dishes offered after menu labeling went into effect tended to contain an average 113 fewer calories, or about 25% less, than the calories of foods introduced before the requirement, the researchers reported.

“That suggests the labeling law is potentially leading to consumers having more lower-calorie options,” Grummon said.

All told, the findings are encouraging to Diekman, who sees it as restaurants slowly guiding their patrons toward a healthier diet.

“They’re going to slowly introduce it to the consumer,” Diekman said of healthier food options. “That’s exciting, because they’re not trying to force it down people’s throats. They’re going to walk with the consumer and help them change.

“Behavior change is a process. It’s not an overhaul. They haven’t jumped in and tried to scare the consumer, but at the same time they’ve recognized their opportunity and their responsibility,” she continued.

Grummon believes that many folks eating out are using the calorie information.

“I do think that the transparency provided by the calorie labels is really helpful to consumers,” Grummon said. “These labels are giving consumers information about foods they might want to order that was not easy to access before the law. Folks can decide how they want to use that information to meet their health goals.”

People who want to eat out in a healthier way should review a restaurant’s menu online beforehand and find a handful of items that look yummy and are lower-calorie, Diekman said. That way, you’ll be aware of the more nutritious options available to you when you place your order.

You should look, in particular, for menu items marked “new item” or “seasonal option,” since this study indicates those are more likely to be lower in calories, Diekman said.

“View it as a process. I’m going to try it today, see how I like it, and then I’ll decide if the next time I want to try another new item or go back to my favorite,” Diekman said.

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