Can't Count on Those Calorie Labels

Daily calorie intake recommendations may not help diners make healthier choices at restaurants

(RxWiki News) Many restaurants today have joined the fight against obesity. Their menu labels tell diners how many calories each food item contains. But do these labels actually help diners make healthy choices?

Some researchers believe that adding information about how many calories to consume per day or per meal could help diners use menu labels better. But consumers may not pay attention to this information or use it effectively, says a new study.

According to this study, providing fast food restaurant patrons with recommended calorie intake information did not help them choose healthier meals.

"Check restaurant menu labels before you order."

This study was conducted by Julie Downs, PhD, associate research professor of social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, and colleagues.

The aim of this study was to find out whether putting recommended calorie intake information on restaurant menus, in addition to the calorie count of each food item, influenced diners’ food choices.

The researchers looked at 1,121 adult diners at two McDonald’s restaurants in New York City who visited the fast food chain for lunch in 2008. At these restaurants, all available menu choices were listed along with how many calories each food item contained.

The diners were randomly assigned to three different groups.  Two groups of diners received one of the following types of information: recommended daily calorie intake for adults or recommended calorie intake per meal for adults.

The third group of diners did not receive any information other than the calorie counts included in the menu.

All the diners were surveyed to collect data about their understanding of a healthy diet and calorie values.

The diners were also asked if they looked at the recommended calorie value along with the calorie content of food items before ordering and if they used that information to decide what to order.

The researchers found that these two pieces of information were not used together by most diners.

Also, providing the extra information regarding how many calories should be consumed per day or per meal did not cause diners to purchase meals with fewer calories.

"Most of the findings on this topic suggest that consumers are simply not making precise calculations when choosing restaurant meals," the authors wrote in their study conclusion.

The authors noted a few limitations to the study. Firstly, it was conducted at a fast food chain where diners may not be motivated to consume fewer calories. Secondly, the study did not look at how many calories were consumed during the rest of the day by the diners.

Also, the calorie information was handed out in the form of slips of paper. The authors could not tell if other ways of displaying this information would be more effective.

According to family practitioner and dailyRx contributing expert Deborah Gordon, MD, "Researchers and Policymakers continue to hope that they can reduce calories eaten, without regard for macronutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrates) or food quality, and effect weight loss. The researchers point out the policy makers' folly: publicizing calories in food does not reduce, and might even increase, the amount of calories consumed."

"Serious researchers addressing the obesity crisis are investigating outside the calorie box, and finding that changing macronutrients provide a modest calorie reduction, not a great one, but greater satiety, diet perseverance, and thus greater and sustained weight loss. A steak has more calories than a diet coke and an order of fries, but will carry a weight conscious individual more surely toward the next meal without need for a snack!" says Dr. Gordon.

The results of this study were published July 18 in the American Journal of Public Health.

The study was funded by grants from the US Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service and the Center for Behavioral Decision Research, Carnegie Mellon University.

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Review Date: 
July 19, 2013