Do Calorie Counts on Menus Make You Eat Healthier?

Key Takeaways

  • New research suggests menu items at chain restaurants added after 2018 contain 25% fewer calories than items on menus before calorie labeling rules.
  • Previous research suggests calorie information does tend to have an effect on diners, although to a modest degree.
  • Calorie counts can be part of a larger strategy aimed at eating more nutritiously, especially by ordering vegetable-heavy dishes.

Because restaurants routinely serve portion sizes larger than what you may need, dining out can pose a problem for those attempting to manage their weight. If you are considering ways to impact your weight management goals, ordering menu items added within the last few years might be a savvy tactic, according to a study in JAMA Network Open.

About the Study

Researchers looked at the calorie counts of more than 35,000 menu items sold at 59 large U.S. chain restaurants between 2012 and 2019. This surveillance included a major transition to listing calorie counts on all menus, a labeling regulation that went into effect in 2018.

Anna Grummon, PhD

These labels are giving consumers information that was not easy to access before the law. That helps them decide how they want to use that information to meet their health goals.

— Anna Grummon, PhD

They discovered that dishes added after that rule tend to contain about 25% fewer calories on average than menu items that were available before the change.

“This finding suggests that the labeling law is potentially leading to consumers having more lower-calorie options,” says lead researcher Anna Grummon, PhD, a research fellow in nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “These labels are giving consumers information that was not easy to access before the law. That helps them decide how they want to use that information to meet their health goals.”

But Do They Work?

Having more lower-calorie choices is helpful, but do diners actually respond by selecting those items over more caloric options? Previous research suggests it may have some effect, although only on a modest scale.

A 2018 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research looking at selections from more than 5,000 diners found that those whose menus listed calories ordered meals with 3% fewer calories—about 45 calories less—than those who had menus without the counts.

Diners with the information tended to order fewer calories in their appetizer and entree courses compared to those without calorie counts, but both groups were about the same with dessert and drink orders.

Another study, published in 2019 in the journal BMJ, evaluated the effects of labeling on three different restaurant chains in Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi over the course of three years. Researchers found a decline in calorie consumption—of about 60 calories per order—after labeling implementation, but that shift didn’t last. The reduction diminished significantly a year after labeling was available.

One difficulty in simply presenting diners with calorie numbers is that people may underestimate how many calories they eat in a day, and how much they burn through exercise, according to some research.

For example, a study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found a wide range of under and overestimation, with some participants believing they’d burned up to 72% more calories during exercise than they actually had.

Non-Calorie Approach

Whether you decide to focus on calories or not, eating healthier when dining out can involve a range of strategies, according to dietitian Patricia Bannan, RDN, author of From Burnout to Balance. She suggests tactics such as:

  • Have a veggie-heavy appetizer
  • Start with a vegetable soup or tossed salad for a nutrient boost
  • Swap out less-nutritious options for more vegetables
  • Ask for vegetables to be steamed instead of tossed in butter or oil
  • Opt for a protein-rich entree like salmon, tofu, or roasted chicken, to feel full for longer
  • Split a dessert, since you may be satisfied after just a few bites

Patricia Bannan, RDN

At the end of the day, one meal isn’t going to derail your health goals.

— Patricia Bannan, RDN

Most of all, make enjoyment the real top priority, Bannan says. Selecting a dish that you do not really want just because of a calorie count on a menu, for example, may leave you feeling less enthusiastic about dining out in general.

“At the end of the day, one meal isn’t going to derail your health goals,” she notes. “Just as one healthy meal isn’t going to instantly make you healthier, one indulgent meal isn’t going to make you unhealthy. It’s the steps and strategies you implement daily that add up to a big difference in your overall health.”

What This Means For You

Newer menu items in large restaurant chains tend to have fewer calories than older items, but research is mixed about whether seeing this information actually leads people to lower their calorie intake. If you are concerned dining out may derail your weight management goals, opt for newer items on the menu. You also can use other strategies like starting with a salad, requesting steamed vegetables, and splitting dessert.


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