Calorie counts don't change habits, study finds

October 6, 2009 2:49:40 PM PDT
A new study finds New York City's law requiring restaurant chains to post calories on menus doesn't change the eating habits of low-income people. The study tracked customers at McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken in poor New York City neighborhoods with high obesity rates.

Half of customers noticed calorie counts. Twenty-eight percent of those said postings had influenced what they ordered. Nine out of 10 of those said they'd made healthier choices as a result.

But New York University and Yale researchers say receipts showed people had ordered slightly more calories than the typical customer before the law went into effect in July 2008.

The study appears in Health Affairs.

Menu labeling laws are popping up across the country. And if the health care reform bill passes, restaurants with at least 20 locations throughout the country will have to post calories on menus; other nutritional information, such as fat, sodium and carbohydrates will have to be in writing somewhere in the restaurant. (There's not enough room to fit everything on the menu board.)

Proponents say the information is needed more than ever. Americans eat about a third of their calories at restaurants, according to Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., which worked with legislators on the menu labeling provision. Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese.

Studies show that most people can't guess how many calories are in a menu item, and often underestimate, said Wootan.

At Dunkin' Donuts, for instance, one would be better off calorie-wise choosing the apple cheese danish (330 calories) or a ham, egg and cheese on an English Muffin (350 calories).

"People have a right to know what's in their food so they can make their own choices," said Wootan. "If someone is going to sell you a 3,000-calorie appetizer, they should tell you, so you can decide for yourself if you really want to eat 3,000 calories."

The proposal seems to have a lot of public support. The California Center for Public Health Advocacy commissioned a telephone poll in 2007 that found that 84 percent of respondents supported requiring chains to post calories on menus and boards. California became the first state to enact statewide menu labeling legislation, in September 2008.

While many restaurants voluntarily provide nutrition information online or in the establishment, diners often can't find it or don't see it.

Penny Shanks, 50, executive director of the Clarkston Chamber of Commerce in Michigan, recently spent more than 30 minutes online searching for nutritional information for a chain restaurant. She likes to choose what she orders before dining out to make sure it's healthy.

"It's hard when you eat out," said Shanks, who wound up ordering soup that day. "Portion sizes are large. It's kind of a mystery, how many calories, how much is fat, how much is carbs, all these little things you want to be concerned about."

With a split-second decision, "you can save hundreds, even thousands of calories by ordering just a little differently," said Wootan. For example, ordering a glazed doughnut instead of a honey bran raisin muffin at Dunkin' Donuts will save you 280 calories.

More than 80 percent of New Yorkers ordered differently when seeing calorie counts, she said, citing a survey from food service consultants Technomic Inc. More than half said it affected where they ate.

But other experts aren't sure that calorie counts will achieve the desired results.

The plan could backfire, said Stacey Rosenfeld, a New York psychologist who specializes in eating disorders. If you don't order what you want because it's high in calories, you might become dissatisfied and overeat later, she said.

Jessica Setnick, a Dallas-based dietitian who works with children and teens to address weight and eating issues, points out that nutrition information has been out there for years on packaged foods.

"People either think it doesn't apply to them - these people still won't care - or they are overly preoccupied with calories and fat grams and focus too much on the insignificant data," she said. "The people in the middle, who eat appropriate amounts of a wide variety of foods, don't need nutrition information on a menu to guide them."

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