The Effects of Calorie Counts on Menus Is Pretty Surprising

updated May 30, 2019
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“Data show that if you have information on menu labels, the average consumer will reduce their caloric intake by 30 to 40 calories a day,” FDA commissioner Scott Gottleib told USA Today. “And that turns out to be about three to five pounds a year that you can lose by just having better information.”

Gottlieb made those comments in May, shortly after his agency started to enforce a rule requiring restaurants with more than 20 locations to list calorie counts on their menus or signage. Of course he put a positive spin on it — it’s his FDA, after all. And according to a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, Gottlieb’s numbers are pretty close — but his weight-loss estimate is a little too optimistic.

The Actual Effect of Calorie Count Information on Menus

According to Market Watch, these Cambridge, Massachusetts-based researchers learned that diners who read the calorie counts on menus reduced their calorie intake by 44.9 calories per meal. And although those numbers might’ve slightly affected whether diners had an entrée or an appetizer — or what they ordered from those sections of the menu — they didn’t affect the number of calories consumed from drinks or dessert. In fact, calorie counts made customers 7.6 percent more likely to order a drink.

“By the time diners reach dessert, they may have ‘decision fatigue,'” Market Watch suggested. “They might be so tired of calculating calories that they choose what they’d normally eat, regardless of how healthy it is. After a healthy meal, people may also be more inclined to ‘splurge’ on dessert and drinks.”

These results were based on studying the habits of more than 5,000 restaurant-goers. Researchers from both Cornell University and Louisiana State University conducted an experiment in two college restaurants — the sit-down kind, because faaaancy — and separated diners into two groups. The menus handed to the test group were printed with calorie counts, while the control group got calorie-free menus.

So, What Does This All Mean?

By the researchers’ calculations, calorie counts might only contribute to a loss of one pound, over the course of three years. We’re taking those results to mean that we probably shouldn’t obsess over what we eat at a restaurant — especially if it’s not an every-single-day occurrence. Yeah, let’s go with that.