Menu calorie counts mean fewer calories for kids

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© Ariel Skelley/CORBIS

City mandates requiring fast-food and chain restaurants to post calorie counts on menus have had mixed success at actually curbing people’s caloric intake. A study published this past October in the journal Health Affairs for example, found that, while nearly 30% of people said reading calorie counts on menus impacted their choices, when the researchers actually kept tabs on what folks were eating, that wasn’t the case. Yet a new study published this week in the journal Pediatrics suggests that, while calorie counts may not be impacting adults’ own choices, they do appear to result in lower-calorie meal choices for kids.

In this recent study, researchers at Seattle Children’s Hospital recruited 99 parents of three- to six-year-olds. At the onset of the study, the parents and children were polled about their fast-food eating habits. Later, the parents were divided into two groups—one was given sample menus from McDonald’s without calorie information, the other provided the same menu with the calorie information. The researchers found that, parents who had the calorie counts consistently chose less calorie-rich meals for their children, opted for meals with an average of 102 fewer calories—an average calorie reduction of 20%, compared with meals chosen by parents without access to the calorie information. Interestingly, as in the Health Affairs study, calorie information did not influence the adults’ own food choices.

Mandates requiring calorie counts to be displayed on menus are currently in place in 30 cities and states across the U.S. Think you know how many calories are in your favorite fast-food items? To test your calorie content knowledge, take the restaurant quiz at the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s nutrition policy page.