Restaurant Calorie Counts Don't Help Diners Eat Better

Staff Writer
Because, the math!

Photo Sasabune Omakase Modified: Flickr/erin/CC 4.0

OK, we admit it: We might be wrong.

Despite the fact that plenty of restaurant institutions have put up calorie counts on their actual menu, which we thought would help people eat better, a new study says that it might not help at all, TODAY.com reports.

In fact, researchers who staked out two New York City McDonald's found that sometimes, being given full calorie information might make adults eat more.

The study, led by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and published in the American Journal of Public Health, pulled 1,121 adults and divided them into three groups. The first group was given information about recommended calories for a single meal (640 for women and 800 for men). The second group was told how many calories were recommended for a day (2,000 for women and 2,400 for men). The third was given no additional information.

All the McDonald's had calorie counts on their menus, but even then the men and women tended to eat more than the recommended intake, no matter what information was given to them.

Furthermore, those who received general calorie information tended to eat a little bit more than the no-information group. Julie Downs, lead author, speculates that when people see how many calories they're allowed to eat, they try to hit that. So a Big Mac might be listed as 550 calories, so "[customers] maybe feel OK to go ahead and get a slightly bigger main dish, but at the same time still get the same side dish and drink they would normally get. And then all of a sudden they're up over 1,100 calories for the meal. Each one item may seem OK, but it adds up," Downs told Web MD. So it's not that they don't care; it's just they don't do the math.

Obviously, if you're an avid calorie-counter it will definitely help, but as for making consumers make more informed health decisions, Downs suggests giving them calorie information might spur people to order a little bit more than necessary, instead of relying on their gut instinct that a burger is a burger and you probably shouldn't order two.

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