Do Calorie Counts on Menus Curb Eating? Not So Much

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Over 200,000 fast food and chain restaurants will soon include calorie counts on their menus, as mandated in the healthcare bill President Obama signed last spring. But even if our favorite fast food chains and restaurants start deluging us with caloric information, are we going to pay attention? The whole idea behind the counts is to help Americans get better informed about how much we’re eating and —hopefully—start choosing foods that are lighter and healthier. And the latest study on the effect of caloric information shows that it’s only marginally effective in improving eating habits.

According to the latest survey of New York City consumers, only about a sixth of fast food patrons have used calorie information to decide what to purchase – and bought less food on average – since city officials introduced a labeling system  in 2008. But those who did rely on the additional information made substantial cuts in how much they ate: on average they purchased 106 fewer calories than those who didn’t pay attention to the counts.  That could lead to a weight loss of up to 10 pounds a year.

Consumers at three of the country’s biggest chains – McDonald’s, Au Bon Pain and KFC, representing 42% of all consumers in the study – showed significant average calorie reductions of 44, 80 and 59 calories per purchase respectively. That, say public health experts, is a positive trend since a third of adults and 17% of children and teenagers in the U.S. are obese.

(More: 8 ‘Xtreme’ Meals: Report Identifies Worst Menu Choices)

“We know people have a very difficult time calculating calories accurately,” study author Cathy Nonas said. “This kind of thing puts a little pressure on the restaurants to offer healthier options.”

Nonas and her team carried out lunchtime hour surveys in spring 2007, a year before the calories-on-menus mandate in New York City, and again in spring 2009, nine months after the regulations were in effect. A total of 7,309 customers in 2007 and 8,489 customers in 2009 provided their register receipts and answered survey questions at 168 randomly selected locations of the top 11 fast food chains –  Popeye’s, Pizza Hut and Burger King.

But while these data appear to be a step in right direction for curbing our caloric glut, previous research in both New York City and in other cities have reported conflicting results. A 2009 study by NYU and Yale professors found, after checking receipts, that customers actually ordered slightly more calories than the typical customer had before the calorie count law was implemented. Two years later, an NYU School of Medicine study demonstrated that calorie labeling did not change the number of calories teenagers and parents purchased at fast food chains in the city, with teens buying a whopping 725 calories on average even after the labeling. And another analysis of one Taco Time outlet in Washington State found “basically absolutely nothing” in purchasing changes after calorie counts started popping up.

(More: Are Calorie Counts on Menus Accurate? Not So Much)

Why the discrepancies? For the most part, the contrasting results reflect differences in how restaurants have handled the labeling rule, as well as differences in the way researchers collected data in the various studies. Calorie information works best “at the point of decision making,” according to Nonas. This means it is most effective when displayed in the same font and size as the items and prices listed on the menu, not tucked away where it is barely visible. Most restaurants only matched calorie stat fonts and sizes to menu items some time after the ruling was implemented. And studies such as the 2009 and 2011 NYU papers both focused solely on lower-income communities such as Harlem and the Bronx, where lower education and cost likely play bigger roles in food choices than caloric intake. Nonas also argues that research such as the 2009 NYU study was conducted too soon after the mandatory labeling was put in place to really capture any changes in eating behavior. That study included data four weeks after New York City’s mandated menu labeling went into effect, while Nonas allowed a year to pass. The 2009 study also considered only 1,100 consumers, while Nonas looked at about 15,000.

“This is the largest study that has been done to date…and we waited until everything calmed down [to do it],” she said. “I think that’s probably a reason [for the different results].” As the labeling law extends to the rest of the country, nutritionists are hopeful that future studies will show that calorie labeling is doing what it was intended to do—make us think twice about our purchasing behavior and opt for lower calorie fare. Tackling America’s obesity epidemic is no small feat, but thinking with our brains rather than our stomachs is certainly a step in the right direction.

Tara Thean is a TIME contributor. Find her on Twitter at @TaraThean. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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