More fast food and chain restaurants are posting calorie
counts on their menus, but a new study suggests only one in three diners reads
The good news is most consumers who do read calorie counts
take them into consideration when deciding what to order.
"Restaurant food tends to have many more calories than
people realise, and many more calories than if the same food were cooked at home, either because of the preparation method or because restaurants often provide
large portion sizes," Katherine Bauer told Reuters Health in an e-mail.
Bauer, from the Centre for Obesity Research and Education at
Temple University in Philadelphia, was not involved with the new study.
Some US cities, including New York, require chain
restaurants to post calorie counts for diners. As part of the 2010 Patient
Protection and Affordable Care Act, chains with at least 20 locations nationwide
will have to list nutrition information on their menus."Ideally we hope
that restaurant patrons see the calorie information posted at fast food and
other restaurants and choose a meal with fewer calories.
So far, the evidence is really mixed about whether that
actually happens," Bauer said.
The new study was led by Holly Wethington from the National Centre
for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, part of the Centres for
Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. She and her colleagues used the 2009 national Health Styles
survey, which assessed people's health-related attitudes, knowledge and behaviours.
They analysed responses from 4 363 participants about
whether they had read calorie information at fast food and chain restaurants,
and if they had how they used that information.
Using the information
Over half of the respondents said they went to fast food or
chain restaurants less than once a week. 10% reported going three or more times
per week, and another 10% said they never went to those restaurants.
About 36% of people who saw calorie information at chain
restaurants read it. Of them, 95% reported using the information at least
sometimes, according to findings published in the Journal of Public Health.
Respondents who went to fast food and chain restaurants
three or more times per week were less likely to read calorie counts than those
who went less often. Women were more likely to read calorie counts than men.
It's not clear whether the way consumers use nutrition
information would have changed since 2009, Bauer said. "When people have
looked at specific cities like New York, Seattle, and Philadelphia, awareness
of the calorie labels increased quite a bit from before calories were required
to be posted in those cities," she said.
"However, with the exception of the Seattle study that
saw decreases in calories purchased among women and from coffee shops, these
studies haven't seen any changes in calories purchased before and after menu labelling
laws went into effect." Bauer hopes having calorie information posted may
motivate restaurants to provide more healthy options.
Her own research has suggested fast food restaurants are
offering more salads and other low-calorie side dishes than in the
past. "The combination of having more low-calorie options and having
calories posted could be beneficial for consumers who are calorie conscious but
also eat out frequently," Bauer said.
"More and more restaurants are posting nutrition
information, including calorie content, so consumers can ask the restaurant
staff for this information to see what is in the foods sold," Wethington
told Reuters Health in an e-mail.
"Using this information can help consumers select
choices that are tasty and satisfying yet perhaps with a few less calories to
help manage overall daily caloric intake," she said. "Balancing daily
energy intake with regular physical activity can help manage weight.
Knowing how calorie
information is used can help us better understand whether nutrition education
(such as in high school) could be useful and the types of messages regarding
calories that are most helpful at the point of purchase," Wethington said.
(Picture: Burger on a weight scale from Shutterstock)