October 14 at 8:40 AM • Comments: 5 • Views: 69297

Can Posting Calories Change Eating Habits?

New York City officials have come up with a new way to help people lose weight: force chain restaurants to post their food caloric content directly on the menu.

Times are changing

With 2/3 of Americans overweight or obese, and Americans averaging 1/3 of their caloric intake at restaurants, it seems that we know little about what we’re eating. Studies have shown that most people can't guess and often under estimate how many calories are in a menu item. Thus, labeling foods with the caloric content will provide consumers with more tools to control their diets.

People seem to like this strategy. The California Center for Public Health Advocacy commissioned a telephone poll in 2007 and discovered that 84% of those polled supported requiring chains to post caloric content on their menus and boards, and California became the first state to enact statewide labeling legislation in September, 2008.

Menu labeling laws are appearing throughout the country. California and New York City are requiring it, and soon restaurants in Tennessee and Philadelphia will post calories, too.

Though many chain restaurants currently list the nutrition facts for their menu items, they are often hard to find. By having calories posted on the board, consumers will be better prepared to make healthy decisions. Since most people eat out for convenience and because they are in a hurry, health typically takes a backseat, but now it’s becoming a lot easier.

There are some problems

Some critics complain that posting calories ruins their enjoyment of their favorite childhood foods, but they certainly don’t have to STOP eating higher calorie foods. They just may want to limit the frequency and quantity of these items in their diets. They can make an informed decision to have a Dunkin Donuts honey bran raisin muffin, or save 280 calories and have a glazed donut instead.

Of course, posting calories does not paint the whole picture of how healthy (or unhealthy) a food is. Take avocados, for instance. A medium avocado contains anywhere from 250- 350 calories, but also contains nearly 20 vitamins and minerals, including antioxidants and essential fatty acids. It is doubtful any foods found in a chain restaurant will have this high of nutrition content, and in addition if many other items were thoroughly examined for their "nutrition content,” we'd find that they likely aren't healthy at all.

So what foods have lots of calories?

Some restaurants serve over 2,000 calories in an appetizer alone! If you knew that before ordering, would you still want it? Examples of the highest calorie foods to eat at restaurants are:

  • Chili cheese fries from Outback, which contain over 2,000 calories in one order
  • P.F. Changs "healthy" chicken noodle soup contains 759 calories
  • Spinach and artichoke dips from chains range from 930 calories to 2000
  • One author ranked On The Border Firecracker Stuffed Jalapenos with Chili Con Queso as the worst appetizer in America, coming in at 1,950 calories, 134 g of fat (36 grams saturated) and 6,540 mg of sodium!

Obviously, some of these items are unabashedly unhealthy, containing gobs of cheese or having a heavy cream base. Others are more subtle, and would not be recognized as unhealthy without calorie listings on the menu.

What to do

Use your best judgment when ordering. This can be tricky, as TGIF's pecan-crusted chicken salad contains 1360 calories and unknown quantity of fat and sodium (because they refuse to disclose that information). Point? Be careful about what you eat when you go out. Even salads aren’t necessarily healthy.

Your healthiest bet is to make your own food at home. Use fresh produce, whole grains, lean meats and healthy nuts.

If you do eat out, make sure you are looking at every aspect of the meal to determine if it is healthy. Order meats broiled, vegetables steamed with sauces on the side, and get a side salad with no cheese or oil or vinegar for the dressing (or get their dressing on the side). For soups, pick something with a broth base rather than cream, and skip the processed white crackers. If you don't live in an area that posts calories on the menu board, ask to see their nutrition facts or research their menus online in advance.

America's national pastime of eating out can be a minefield, so arm yourself with as much information as you can before you walk into it.

Photo credit:

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5 Comments

  • Smartliving Guest Smartliving Guest

    A concern that occurred to me while reading this article is that if the health care reform bill passes and requires all chains to post the calorie content in their foods, then they will most likely focus on cutting calories to make their foods appear healthier. I am not a scientist so do not know how they would do this, but I am sure with the millions of dollars resting on it, they would find a way to cut the calories while making the menu even less healthy (most likely chemicals replacing real food substances).
    I would enjoy seeing the calories and nutrition facts prominently displayed so I could see if a muffin has 600 calories, or a bagel has 1,000 calories before I order. I recently stopped at a Subway and asked to see the nutrition facts for their pizzas (they display their nutrition facts proudly on their menu after all), and low and behold, none to be found. I even waited to ask the manager, who simply said they never received any information on the pizzas. It told me the pizzas must be terrible for you, and I chose a turkey breast 6 inch. Commented on HelloLife · October 14, 2009 at 11:43 AM

  • Jessica Corwin MPH RDN Jessica Corwin MPH RDN

    This is such an interesting debate & from what I have read, it depends on the person... Would love to hear your opinion on the issue... Commented on HelloLife · September 21, 2011 at 8:37 AM

  • Julie Julie

    Thanks again for a great article, I think for myself anyways tends to go towards the most unhealthy thing to eat because it looks or taste good. But I am finding myself more thinking twice before I order something, is it really worth it..... Commented on HelloLife · September 21, 2011 at 12:33 PM

  • Erin Erin

    I would LOVE to see this information on restaurant menus. I really do think it would change a lot of people's orders and probably a lot of restaurant's practices. I'm not saying people shouldn't be able to eat foods that are not so healthy if they want, but they should at least have the opportunity to make an educated decision.
    Commented on HelloLife · September 21, 2011 at 12:53 PM

  • Jessica Corwin MPH RDN Jessica Corwin MPH RDN

    "Like" :) Commented on HelloLife · September 22, 2011 at 7:56 AM


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