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There's been a lot of controversy about whether calorie counts should be a part of restaurant menus or not. Laws have been enacted around the country, with the most notable being in New York City. The legislation has been vigorously fought by the restaurant industry, with them actually suing to block these requirements. I have been saying for years that information matters and that knowing what is in the meal you eat makes all the difference. The real question is, does this work and can it work for you?
A group at Yale University published a study recently that supports that having information about what you eat is important. (Am J Public Health 2010; 100:312–318) They studied 303 participants divided into 3 groups. One group had dinner made up of restaurant meals with no information on the menu, while the other two groups had calorie counts available to them on the menus. Of the latter groups one also was provided with information on the recommended daily intake of calories. The meals were provided from the chain Au Bon Pain as well as a local non-chain restaurant.
Participants in the groups that had the calorie counts available to them ordered about 14% fewer calories. Of those groups, the one that had only calories ate 124 fewer calories while the calorie and information group consumed 203 less calories. Simple. Or is it? The interesting thing is that the folks who were in the calorie only information group ate more later on that day and that's where it gets really fascinating.
When the dinner and after dinner food was taken into account, the no-calorie label group and the calorie only group ate about the same amount of food (1,630 and 1,635 calories respectively). Those who had the calorie counts and the information on what they should consume for the day ate significantly less by about 250 calories. 250 calories! Wow! That works out to about a half pound of weight loss (or weight gain) each week.
I love this study and believe that calorie labeling in restaurants can be good for everyone. For the consumer, knowing the number of calories they are going to consume means they will likely order less. For the government, consumers and insurance companies this can potentially lower health care costs. Lastly, the restaurants win as well. They can serve less food, which lowers their costs and they make more profit. Simple solutions for everyone.
Timothy S. Harlan, M.D.
February 8, 2010
Last updated: 02/08/10