Insights & Actions for Healthy Living
Restaurant Menu Calorie Totals: Do They Influence Choices or Lifestyle?

Restaurant Menu Calorie Totals: Do They Influence Choices or Lifestyle?

Dining out is something most of us do at some point in the week or month or even just for a special occasion.

For many it’s part of the daily routine, eating out is one aspect of the hustle and bustle of their fast paced lives whether in a full service or fast food dining locale.

No matter where you choose to enjoy a meal when dining out, it is often a decision-laden event. At least it is for me. I ponder the menu trying to consider so many variables.

Food & Eating: Choices vs. Desires

  • What do I feel like eating at this moment in time (it can change rapidly sometimes from the time I order to the time I get served!)
  • Which meal or item is the healthiest? Is it low in saturated fat, low sodium, no trans fat, high in fiber, too much carbohydrate, good source of nutrients…what about the calories??
  • Is it a good value for the amount of money I will spend?
  • How bad can it be screwed up? Will it be something I can eat when I get it? (you know will it be burnt, dry, salty, bland, wilted lettuce, etc. or will it be just as it should)
  • Will I get sick if I order that item? – food borne illness is always a consideration for me!

Coming to restaurant menus soon, and already installed in many chains, will be calorie information for standard items.

Under the federal law passed in 2010 (mandated by section 4205 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) the Food and Drug Administration continues to set policies that require restaurant chains with more than 20 locations to place calorie information for standard menu items on the menu. The goal put forth by the government for taking this action was to “provide consumers information about the nutritional content of food to enable them to make healthier food choices and may help mitigate the trend of increasing obesity in America.”

I appreciate the information and actually would love to see even more information including fat content and sodium content in order for me to make the best choice possible for me and my family. Many people are not obese but have other considerations such as high blood pressure or just a desire to stay healthy. Allergy information clearly displayed would also be a bonus – which food items have nuts, milk, gluten, soy or MSG would be great information for those with a sensitivity, intolerance or allergy.

I know I’m not the typical diner, though, as my education and years of experience as a dietitian naturally have me looking at menus differently than others.  I often wonder if the additional information will really be considered by others.  After all, most people make the decision to go into a fast food outlet with the knowledge that most of the food there isn’t that great for them.

Nutrition Information: Decision Changer?

Research has begun to determine whether more information is actually impacting the decisions people are making. Will Americans choose lower calorie options if given the hard data? Will our fast food intake decrease? Do people even understand what the information means and how to incorporate it into our eating patterns? Are we seeing any decrease in obesity?

The current thinking is that people are looking at individual food items and saying to themselves: main dish is 450 calories, not bad, I pick that. Then ordering side items, calorie laden beverages and desserts looking at individual totals and not doing the math required to add it all up only to realize that the one meal they plan to eat is 2,250 calories!

Knowledge of calorie information is power! The more we know, the better our choices could be. However, we must remember that having information to make a food choice is only one part of a leading a healthy lifestyle especially to combat obesity. We need to encourage people to be physically active, stop smoking, wear a seatbelt, cut back salt in the diet, and a myriad of other healthy behaviors which also play a role in obesity and the development of chronic diseases. If you know you are eating 1,000 calories for lunch, will you go out and exercise to make up for the high calorie meal to manage your weight?

Knowing calorie information and empowering everyone to make better food choices is a GREAT first step. Let’s not stop there!

What do you think about menu labeling and how has it changed your food choices? Has it spurred you on to making other healthy lifestyle choices?

I would love to hear from you!

6 Responses to Restaurant Menu Calorie Totals: Do They Influence Choices or Lifestyle?

  1. I have been fortunate that I am not one that has ever been concerned about my weight. I’m one of those that people love to hate as i simply just don’t put on weight. I don’t take calories and carbs into account although i am becoming more aware of it as I get older. I do believe however that nutritional information will affect decision making, albeit only in a small percentage of people.

  2. I think they defiantly have had an effect on me when looking at the menu at burger king and seeing a meal will take me to 1300calories with it not even being large. Well that made me think again about having it since it doesnt really fill you either? I am quite good with nowing around the amount of calories to expect it certain products but theyre are a few that do take you off guard and now this has been brought to my attention , Great post!!

  3. I eat out very often so I pay attention to calories content information on the menus. Not all restaurants in my area have them, but the number is rising. However, when I dine with someone special, I choose the food which I believe has the best taste, because, frankly, who would like to eat some “nasty healthy food” during such an occasion? 🙂

    • Thanks James, I think we all benefit from the nutrition information on menus. You are right, we have a choice when we are informed! Thanks for sharing!

  4. Unfortunately, it’s not always about calorie information and macronutrients, they don’t really have that much to do with ‘eating healthy’ when we don’t have any idea how is this particular product made. I would much rather enjoy 100 calories of undressed salad or fruits than 100 calories of any fast food.
    Anyhow, it’s mostly fast food places that offer nutritional information, and many decent places that serve much healthier food don’t. Since I avoid eating fast food in general, I rarely see calorie information – but even at the store when I’m buying groceries, the nutritional information chart always has a great impact on my decision to buy the product.

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