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More menu-labeling news

A new study out of Yale University's psychology department examines the relationship between the way calorie-content information is (or isn't) posted on menus and the amount people eat.

Research published December 17 in the American Journal of Public Health examined the amount of food people ate during and after meals for which they were given menus that included no information about calories; a calorie count for each item; or calorie counts plus a message noting that adults should eat about 2,000 calories per day.

In brief, the researchers found that people with no calorie information ordered an average of 2,189 calories for dinner and ate about 1,459 at that meal. After dinner, this group reported eating 179 more calories, for an evening total of 1,630.

Those who were given calorie information ordered an average of 1,862 calories and consumed 1,335. After dinner, they ate 294 more calories,for a total of 1,625.

The group given calorie counts plus the information about total calories required in a day ordered an average of 1,860 calories and ate 1,256. After dinner they ate 177 more calories for an evening total of 1,380 -- about 250 calories fewer than the group without calorie information.

The research involved fewer than 300 people, and the ordering and eating of the food took place in a university research building (though not one associated with nutrition research), not a fast-food joint. The food they ordered came from either Au Bon Pain or a local fast-food restaurant.

In a strange twist, "for a small number of participants (12.9%), the restaurant ran out of their first item choice, in which case they selected another item." More than 10 percent doesn't strike me as "a small number," since that translates into about 30 people in the study. That seems kind of sloppy to me, and makes me wonder whether there was much difference between the number of calories in the food people really wanted and what they settled for.

The amount of food consumed by participants after the fast-food meal was self-reported, and the calorie counts were estimated using an online database. So, the way I read it, the number of calories folks ate in the evening -- an outcome that's positioned as one of the study's main findings-- is largely based on guesswork. Certainly not strong enough a result to warrant this conclusion:

The findings support the proposal that chain restaurants should be required [emphasis mine] to post calorie labels on restaurant menus; however, they suggest that to maximize the effectiveness of this policy, menus should also include a label informing individuals of the daily caloric requirements for an average adult.

I am admittedly skeptical about legislation that imposes menu labeling as the key to solving the nation's obesity problem. What do you make of this latest study? Does it alter your thinking about the possible impact of menu labeling?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  January 4, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nutrition and Fitness , Obesity  
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Next: Packaged diet meals rate pretty high -- with caveats


First, telling women, especially sedentary women who are no longer in their 20s or 30s, that they can eat 2,000 calories a day is just silly. Many women would gain weight on that much food.

Second, I think that there will be an initial reaction to the calorie information that will produce "better" choices in terms of lower-calorie meals. Then, the calorie information will fade into the background and people will revert to "better" choices in terms of what tastes better to them, which usually translates into higher-calorie selection.

Mostly, I think that mandatory calorie postings is a waste of time and represents affluent white people thinking that poorer, mostly minority people need to have their food choices dictated to them because they are too stupid and lazy to do any critical thinking on their own.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | January 4, 2010 9:31 AM | Report abuse

I like calorie postings. I'm trying to watch my calories and somethings it's hard to know how many calories something has. Menu items that sound low-calorie are often prepared in fats or have a large portion, so posting the counts helps me know what I'm ordering.

I suspect I'm in the minority but in the end when I'm still ticking away and not running up the national health deficit maybe the pittance that's spent calculating these counts will have been worth it.

Posted by: RedBird27 | January 4, 2010 11:37 AM | Report abuse

Most of the time, I truly have NO IDEA how many calories are in foods/meals at restaurants. I don't think I would rely on that information all the time, but I would definitely refer to it for an idea of the calories in those meals. I don't think this would help people lose weight, but I do think it would be a wake up call about some of the foods we are eating at restaurants without knowing they they have a day and a half of calories in them.

Also - I concur with "WashingtonDame" - as a 32 year old woman, there is no way I can eat 2000 calories a day without gaining weight. I try to keep it near 1700 instead.

Posted by: lclcl33 | January 4, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

I like the calorie postings, because restaurants prepare food in a completely different way than at-home cooks: restaurants put A LOT more fat (butter, cream, oils, etc) in their food to make it "taste better." If you merely guess at a restaurant food's calories, you're probably going to badly lowball the guess.

For example, a dish that might be low-fat when I fix it at home (e.g. stir-fried chicken) may be a tasty nutritional disaster in the hands of a restaurant chef who will leave the skin on and drown everything in oil.

The posted calorie count is the only way to really know that what you're eating is healthy when you're eating out. And it gives the restaurants some small incentive to try to achieve tastiness without resorting to the cheap shortcut of merely adding fat.

Posted by: web_user | January 4, 2010 12:53 PM | Report abuse

I wish all restaurants provided not only calorie counts, but also sodium levels as those are often sky-high.

When I go to restaurants that provide nutritional information, it does affect what I order- and as someone who tracks caloric intake, it takes out the guesswork when adding up my daily intake. I typically guess way too low on how high the calories are. If someone doesn't want to know the total number of calories, they don't need to look at the information- but for those of us who want to know, it's unfair to keep us in the dark. Why should we get this info from the grocery store but not restaurants?

Posted by: InDC123 | January 4, 2010 2:10 PM | Report abuse

This study does not take into account one very important factor that affects a person's order: price. Perhaps most people would order the healthier choice if the prices were equal, but we all know the grilled chicken salad always costs more than the cheese burger. Therefore, in spite of the seemingly encouraging results of this study, menu labeling is likely to have a lesser effect on the public's general health than many may think.

Posted by: ViennaGal | January 4, 2010 3:59 PM | Report abuse

What is sort of shocking to me that is people ate pretty much all of their daily recommended calories for the day for dinner. I hope the authors also addressed how much each person had for breakfast/lunch, how much exercise they performed, and other things that might affect how much people at for dinner so that a net daily balance of caloric intake could be estimated.

Posted by: polarelf2003 | January 4, 2010 4:29 PM | Report abuse

This study does not appear to be solid justification for requiring restaurants to post calorie and nutrition data. As another poster pointed out, these folks are still consuming most of their calories at the one meal - if one is going to eat out and eat too much once in a while, is it worth all the regulation to lower that binge by 200 calories?

To me, this study is saying, "don't eat out too often."

Compare the numbers to what one eats at home - how many dinners would top 1600 calories?

As others have pointed out, calorie needs are quite individual. As a 50-year-old woman, I eat 2000+ calories per day if I am working out more than 1 hour per day and less if I am not. I doubt a posted recommendation would change that.

Posted by: drmary | January 4, 2010 5:41 PM | Report abuse

I wasn't really particular with my food intake but this year i have decided to improve my eating habits and calorie posting would help me achieve my goal.

Tracy, Velocity Fulfillment

Posted by: VelocityFulfillment | January 6, 2010 3:12 PM | Report abuse

The study sounds extremely weak to me; I agree, it's not a justification for much of anything.

However, I love calorie postings. In Washington state, where I live, they're required at all chain restaurants. Sometimes, they're a bit hard to find, but I've found knowing the calories in food has definitely changed the way I eat. So many restaurant entrees are just ridiculous. Finding out the number of calories in Panera meals, for example, was really eye-opening.

Posted by: kent_eng | January 6, 2010 3:38 PM | Report abuse

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