Counting calories may be one way to fight the obesity epidemic.
Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) enacted a law requiring restaurants and grocery stores with 20 or more locations to display calorie counts on standard menu items.
As part of the Affordable Care Act of 2010, the new requirements were designed to help tackle America’s obesity crisis — an epidemic that has skyrocketed in the past 50 years, with nearly 70 percent of U.S. adults being obese.
And so far, the rules seem to be working.
The new calorie counts on restaurant menus have customers ordering less — especially when it comes to their appetizer and entrée courses, according to a study released last month by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
To understand the impact the law is having on customers’ food choices, researchers from Cornell University conducted a randomized field experiment at two full-service restaurants.
The research team recruited 5,550 diners who were then randomly assigned to either a control group, which received the normal menus, or a treatment group, which received a similar menu but with calorie counts included next to each menu item.
After their meals, the diners completed a survey detailing their sociodemographic information along with their attitudes toward diet and exercise.
The researchers found that the diners who received the menus with the calorie counts ordered meals with 3 percent fewer calories — which equates to approximately 45 fewer calories — than those who had menus without the caloric information.
Interestingly, the customers in the treatment group ordered fewer calories with their appetizers and entrees, while their dessert and drink choices didn’t change much.
The reason customers switched up their appetizer and entrée options may simply have to do with what’s available, some experts believe.
“When you think about a restaurant menu, there is a large variety in the appetizer and entree options,” Stephanie Hodges, RDN, a registered dietitian who focuses on public health and food policy and founder of The Nourished Principles, told Healthline.
Choosing a grilled option instead of a fried option can significantly reduce the amount of calories in your meal.
Take Chick-Fil-A, for example. A regular chicken sandwich goes for 440 calories, while the grilled chicken sandwich has just 310 calories.
“When you look at the dessert and drink options, there is less variety of options and they all may be pretty similar unless you are comparing a regular soda and a diet soda, which would have a larger caloric difference,” Hodges added.
The vast majority of the diners valued knowing the calorie information of their food choices.
In fact, support for knowing calorie counts increased by approximately 10 percent following the experiment, the study revealed.
In order for these calorie counts to truly make a long-term impact, however, it’s crucial for customers to understand how to make use of this information.
“Providing the calorie information to consumers is just one piece of the puzzle. It is also important for consumers to know what is an appropriate amount of calories for them based on factors like age, sex, weight, and physical activity,” Hodges said.
Restaurants ultimately have nothing to lose from sharing the calorie counts. According to the study, their revenue, profits, and labor remained the same.
Some of the chefs were even surprised by the number of calories in certain dishes, the researchers said.
For example, they would have predicted that the grilled cheese and tomato soup combo was one of the lower-calorie options available, but this was far from the truth.
Researchers think that having this information can encourage chefs to try and create healthier options.
The big question, it seems, is will these calorie counts work and help crack the obesity crisis?
“I think it’s an excellent start,” said Lisa Diewald, Program Manager of the MacDonald Center for Obesity Prevention and Education at the Villanova University M. Louise Fitzpatrick College of Nursing. “Behavior change often begins simply with heightened awareness and knowledge.”
While 45 calories may seem trivial, for those who dine out frequently, this can really add up.
“This calorie savings, while small, is cumulative, potentially resulting in a few lost pounds each year for some, or at least a flattening of the weight gain trajectory,” Diewald said.
Having this information readily available on menus and menu boards provides diners with a clear frame of reference for knowing what and how much they’re eating, Diewald believes, rather than having to resort to a nutritional guessing game.
A new study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that calorie counts on menus are helping diners order less caloric food.
Researchers found that the diners who see calorie counts ordered meals with 3 percent fewer calories — which equates to approximately 45 fewer calories — than those who had menus without the caloric information.