This Is How Calorie Counts on Menus Affect Your Diet

@chanelpluscat via Twenty20

You probably don’t need a restaurant menu to tell you that a bacon cheeseburger or loaded potato skins are calorie bombs. But the number of calories in other popular menu items may not be so obvious: Who would have guessed Starbucks’ butter croissant has about half the calories of the pumpkin scone?

Which is why calorie counts on menus can make all the difference — and help you make healthier choices. In fact, new research from Australia’s University of Technology Sydney found that restaurant patrons ate fewer calories per meal when the counts were available.

The findings — a review of 186 previous studies — revealed that the drop in calories was greater for women, who consumed 60 fewer calories per meal when menus offered nutritional information. But it is overweight individuals who benefited the most, cutting an average of 83 calories per meal.

While that may not seem like a lot, lead researcher Natalina Zlatevska, Ph.D., notes that if you eat out regularly, the calorie savings add up quickly.

“With more and more food dollars spent on meals purchased outside the home, anything we can do to educate consumers and make them a bit more aware of their choices is a good start,” she said in a university press release. “In the same way that corporate or financial disclosure changes behavior, here we see the disclosure effect changing the food environment.”

The latest research seems to contradict a 2015 study from New York University’s Langone Medical Center, which found that calorie counts averaged between 804 and 839 per meal at menu-labeled restaurants and between 802 and 857 per meal at ones that were not labeled.

But that study was limited to people dining out at major fast-food chains (including KFC, McDonald’s and Burger King). At the time, study author Brian Elbel, Ph.D., pointed out that “labels may yet work at non-fast-food, family-style restaurant chains or for specific groups of people with a greater need than most to consume fewer calories and eat more healthily.”

The authors of the Australian paper are optimistic that restaurants can encourage consumers to make healthier choices and have an effect on rising obesity rates. “We know that retailers are adjusting, so there is the possibility of a combined effect,” said Zlatevska, whose research also found that restaurants offered healthier options when required to display calorie information. “That is where I think bigger change will probably happen. All these incremental changes add up. It is cumulative.”

For now, calorie counts on chain-restaurant menus are only required in some cities and counties in the U.S. or are done voluntarily at popular eateries like Chipotle and California Pizza Kitchen.

A federal mandate of the Affordable Care Act was supposed to take effect requiring restaurants with 20 or more locations to provide calorie counts to consumers, however, the Food and Drug Administration has given restaurants until May 2018 to comply.

Until calorie counts on menus are widely available, calorie-tracking apps are a great way to log your food intake and stay within healthy daily calorie limits.

What Do YOU Think?

Do you compare calorie counts on menus before deciding what to order? Ever been surprised by just how many calories are in some of your favorite restaurant staples? Let us know in the comments!

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LIVESTRONG's MyPlate app has a database with over two million foods, enabling us to understand our users’ eating behavior and provide them with actionable tips and takeways that will help them be more conscious and in control of their health. All the while, we also educate our readers about the impact and the hidden risk of dangerous ingredients in processed foods and pesticides in non-organic versions of their most commonly consumed staple crops such as coffee, apples, corn and grapes. Our aim is to help and inspire people worldwide to live happier, healthier, fitter and longer.