Restaurant Menus..Does the Calorie Count Influence Food Choices?

In several studies in 2013, regarding healthy eating and food choices, evidence confirmed that the calorie count did not have much influence over our food choices.  For example, knowing that one could save 150 calories in ordering a small fry at McDonald’s rather than a medium fry, was not enough information to sway someone to make that food choice swap for fewer calories.

Another analysis was perfumed on 1,100 McDonalds diners in New York City to allow the American Journal of Public Health access to see their food receipts.   Before making their order, a third of the group was educated on what the average daily caloric intake should be of men and women.  The second third of the group was informed of the number of calories and male and female should consume in a given meal, and the last third of the group was given no information on caloric totals.

The results were staggering.  Of the whole group, the majority of women consumed over 650 calories beyond what was suggested for a given meal, and the men averaged 800 calories more than the average suggested an amount for a meal.  Overall, it seemed as if the caloric information on the menu had little to no effect on decision making during this McDonald’s study.

So are the calorie counts a bust for healthy eating? Not necessarily. It could actually be that the general public is not well informed on how many calories they should be consuming per meal or during a day, and therefore, the calorie counts on menus just give them no frame of reference for whether it is a good choice or not.

Another ongoing problem is that most people greatly underestimate the number of calories they are consuming at any given meal or for an entire day.  Another teaching tactic by nutritionists is to provide how much physical activity and to exercise it would take to work off that Big Mac’s 550 calories and that added information had a great effect on influencing people’s food choices.

In 2013, the Hudson Institute, a non-partisan organization that performs policy research, did a study on the link between revenue and menu offerings over a 5-year period. The study included several restaurants such as McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Taco Bell,  Applebee’s, Olive Garden, and Chili’s.  The research was positive! It concluded that restaurants that offer lower calorie food options experienced a 10.9% growth in traffic, while those that did not, experienced a 14.7% decline in traffic.  Furthermore, the research found that those restaurants sold 472 billion lower calorie food options and 13 billion fewer higher calorie food options.

In 2014, The U.S. Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act required restaurant chains to post the calorie count on their menus.

Although fewer calories do not always mean it’s a healthier option, the transition into calorie counts on menus has still brought forth some positive feedback for both the individual, as well as revenue within restaurant food chains.