Study: Calorie Counts in Restaurants May Not Curb Eating Habits

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Given the number of Americans who eat out instead of cooking meals at home, along with the sobering number of us tipping the scales as overweight or obese, a growing number of cities and states have been mandating calorie labeling on restaurant menus. That includes fast-food establishments as well as family dining eateries, with the idea being that once people see the staggering number of calories they are about to consume, they might scale back their eating habits and make healthier choices.

At least that was the idea. But the latest study from one fast food restaurant chain in Washington state found that the calorie counts did not make any difference in purchases that people made. (More on Time.com: Study: Can a Veggie-Rich Diet Make You More Beautiful?)

“I was surprised that we found basically absolutely nothing,” says Eric Finkelstein, a professor of health services research at Duke-National University of Singapore of his negative results. He found that even after the Taco Time food chain added the caloric information to their menus, consumers continued to chose the same items they had prior to the labeling.

Previous studies in other cities where calorie counts have popped up in restaurants, notably New York City, have reported conflicting results—some analyses found that consumers shifted toward lower-calorie items, while others reported, as Finkelstein’s group did, little change.

“Calorie counts may not be sufficient” to change people’s eating habits, he says, “The question of what is the best information to present to the consumer to encourage healthy choices is not answered at this time. I don’t think we know.” (More on Time.com: 10 New Diet Books for 2011)

One factor confounding the impact of the calorie labeling may have been a logo that the taco restaurant chain Finkelstein studied used to highlight healthier choices. With that designation already in place, he says, the addition of the calories might not have made much difference in people’s assessment of better-for-them foods. His group was unable to collect data on whether the introduction of the logos changed diners’ purchases, but the chain is currently reformulating the menu to add more healthy choices, and Finkelstein’s group is collecting data on consumer choices before and after the change.

Then, of course, there’s the possibility that people who chose to eat at fast food restaurants aren’t likely to be swayed by nutritional labeling. By walking into such establishments, they have already made a decision to put healthy choices aside.

So is all the attention and legislation aimed at menu labeling futile? Not necessarily. Even if adding calorie counts doesn’t change consumer choices, says Finkelstein, there may be an indirect benefit on people’s health. Because of regulations and legislations requiring the change, many companies are pro-actively changing their menus and recipes to either make existing choices healthier or adding options for those who want to watch what they eat. “If the menu labeling encourages healthier changes from [food] manufacturers,” he says, “then that will trickle down to the consumer because the menu options will be healthier overall. And [calorie] disclosure may be what it takes to get that pressure on the manufacturers.” With more healthy options available wherever we dine, maybe more Americans will start to eat healthier.

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