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Do Restaurant Calorie Counts Really Change Our Minds?

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by Justina Huddleston, food writer for the Menuism Blog
Photo: Jason Lander / Flickr

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We've all been there. You're at a restaurant and finally settle on the perfect entree - and then you see its calorie count is basically a day's worth of calories. But instead of opting for something healthier, you order it anyway, feeling vaguely bad about yourself the whole time you're eating.

Do calorie counts on restaurant menus really change the way we eat? In an effort to get people to make less-caloric meal choices, several states, including New York, Maine, Massachusetts, and California, have mandated that chain restaurants with more than a certain number of locations must list calorie counts of menu items.

The rule went nationwide with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which included a mandate that by December 2016 all restaurants with more than 20 locations in the U.S. must list the calorie counts of all items on their menus. Several states and counties have preemptively passed such laws, but new research into how calorie counts affect our meal choices have shown some lackluster results.

Two studies published in the Journal of Health Affairs in November 2015 showed that people are basically immune to the calorie counts they see in restaurants.

One of studies, from the New York University School of Medicine, found that over time people pay less and less attention to the calorie counts on menus. In 2008, when New York first passed the law, 51 percent of those polled said they noticed the calorie counts posted on restaurant menus. By 2013-2014, only 37-45 percent reported even noticing the numbers.

When the researchers looked at how posting calorie counts actually affected the foods people were ordering, there was no statistically significant difference either - in fact, it seems like people are making slightly less healthy choices. When the law in New York was first implemented in 2008, the average calorie count per order was 796. In 2013-2014, the average calorie count per order was between 804 and 839.

So, why bother implementing a national calorie count policy at all? It turns out that the biggest impact that menu labeling has could be on the restaurants themselves, not the consumers.

In the second study, Julia Wolfson, a PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, found that restaurants that labeled calorie counts on their menus served food items that were significantly less caloric than restaurants that didn't label. In an analysis of 66 restaurants in the U.S., five of which labeled calorie counts, those that included the counts on their menu had an average of 262 calories per menu item. Those that did not label their menus served items with around 400 calories each. The caveat here is that the five restaurants that were labeling calorie counts on their menus were doing so voluntarily. So, there's no real way to tell if the numbers were lower because of the labeling itself, or if restaurants serving healthier foods in general are more likely to voluntarily include calorie counts on their menus.

That possible discrepancy aside, Americans consume about one third of their calories from dining out, so if menu labeling can really change the average calorie count of restaurant menu items, it would be a big step towards healthier eating.

"Should this trend expand to other restaurants once menu labeling is fully implemented, this could be a really important tool for people to eat healthier," Wolfson told the Huffington Post.

So, next time you're at a restaurant with calorie counts on its menu, take heart - even if you don't actually pay attention to them, you may be making a healthier choice just by virtue of eating there.

Justina Huddleston is a food writer living in Los Angeles. When she's not writing for Menuism or SheKnows, she spends her time in the kitchen creating both virtuous and decidedly junky vegan food. Buffalo chickpea pizza, anyone? She's also been known to eat a plain block of tofu or beans straight out of the can for lunch, but somehow those culinary adventures don't make it to her Instagram. You can follow Justina on Twitter or see what's cooking in her kitchen on her blog A Life of Little Pleasures.