Do calorie-counts on menus reduce the urge to super-size it?

Oct 19, 2012

If you tend to ignore the calorie listings on menus, you’re not alone. The extra info at King County restaurants is proving of limited value in the fight against obesity. On the other hand, some restaurant chains are toning down the message to super-size it.

Chain restaurants in King County – that’s mostly fast-food chains, plus some coffee shops such as Starbucks – are something of a test case. Along with New York City, they were the first in the country to be required to post a calorie-count for each item on their menus.

Public health leaders were hoping customers would see those calorie numbers and then choose the lower-calorie options. Some people do, but past surveys have found that most people don’t pay attention to the calories.

That’s not the end of the story. The process of choosing an item is complicated. There’s a lot of information to process. What about the messaging inside the restaurants?

“Do they have signs or descriptions that say, ‘Megasize this’ or ‘Eat as much as you want,’ or ‘Eat as much as you can’? Did that change over time?”

Brian Saelens, a psychologist and researcher at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, had these questions in mind in his latest study of King County’s menu labels.

He sent an undercover auditor into 50 fast-food joints and coffee shops. And, yes indeed, there was a big drop in the promotions for giant portions and other messaging that researchers call “barriers to healthful eating.” This was during the first 18 months of the menu labeling law, from Dec. 2008 to June 2010.

The biggest changes were in a couple of local taco-oriented chains.

The timing of those changes could be coincidental, Saelens admits, as this was also a periodwhere the economy was in crisis and restaurants may have had other goals with their signage. 

Healthier choices

On the other hand, Saelens was disappointed at how few restaurants began offering more healthy options during this period. Given that they were showing their customers how caloric each item is, he reasoned they might respond by adjusting their menus. Hardly any made improvements to their kids menus, either.

In general, menu labeling has shown “mixed results,” in its ultimate goal of healthier eating, he acknowledges.

But, he’s hopeful that over time, as people see those calorie labels day after day, they eventually might adjust their choices.

“We need to get beyond just impacting the motivated few,” who are looking for health information, he says.  

“Our next step is, okay, how do you make the healthier choices in these places, and other environments, an easier choice.”

Saelens fits the image of the motivated few himself, rarely eating out and riding his bike to work a couple days per week. He dreams of restaurant owners re-thinking their menus, so the cheapest and tastiest items would also be the healthy ones.

Results from studies such as this one, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, may influence national rules about menu labeling, which the federal government is in the process of drafting.