Calorie Postings on Restaurant Menus: Friend or Foe?

African American Couple Reading MenuMany restaurants are now posting calorie information right on the menu. This is thanks in part to the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act. Passed in 2010, the Affordable Care Act requires all restaurants with 20 or more locations to post calorie information on menus, menu boards and display tags, and to provide additional nutrition information upon request.

Unfortunately, posting calorie information does not ensure healthy food choices. A recent study published by the Journal of Consumer Research reported that, when restaurants organized menus by calorie content, consumers chose higher-calorie options. Why? Researchers proposed that consumers tend to associate lower-calorie or healthier options with poor taste quality and choose higher calorie options instead. Interestingly, the study also showed no difference in food choices if higher and lower calorie items were intermixed.

So what does this mean for consumers? According to Christina Rollins, registered dietitian at Memorial Medical Center and spokesperson for the Illinois Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, you may be missing out on tasty, lower-calorie options.

“You should think twice before making choices at restaurants,” Rollins said. “Evaluate the menu items carefully and consider the pros and cons of your choices.”

Before ordering, Rollins recommends considering the following:

  • Flavor profile — savory or sweet?
  • Texture — crispy or smooth?
  • Portion size — sensible portion or could it feed a family of four?
  • Nutrient density — does it come with a side of steamed veggies or is it topped with bacon cheddar fries?
  • Calorie content — does it meet my calorie need for one meal or three days’ worth of meals?

With or without calorie information, restaurant food can be part of a healthy diet. Considering nutritional information can be helpful in making healthy food choices, but it can also lead to some not-so-healthy selections. When it comes to calories and taste, Rollins said, more doesn’t always mean better.