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Yes, People Do Eat Healthier When Menus Show Calorie Counts

Yes, People Do Eat Healthier When Menus Show Calorie Counts

Results from a new survey suggest that listing calorie counts pushes both women and men to order healthier items.

After many delays and debates following 2010's Affordable Care Act, restaurants, fast-casual chains and supermarkets across the nation were required to update menus to reflect calorie counts this May. And a new survey shows that consumers have taken note, with more than 75 percent of consumers indicating that seeing calories really does influence their orders.

The survey comes from the team at, a manufacturer of custom signage, and included responses from 600 diners on their ordering preferences. Half of the group received menus that included detailed nutritional information and calorie counts while another group received menus lacking this information—both groups were asked how nutritional information later played into the meal they ordered.

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Interestingly, a significant portion of both men and women indicated that they actively seek out calorie counts on menus: 80 percent of women and 71 percent of men who participated in the survey said they look at nutritional information when it's available to them.

But the main reason that lawmakers have asked for calorie counts to be publicized—and the basis of the great debate—is whether consumers actually use the information to make healthier choices.

It turned out that, of those surveyed, an average of 50 percent said that they changed their order to something with lower calories—but there was a marked gender disparity: 54 percent of women changed their orders, whereas only 46 percent of men did. This may be less surprising considering that men are more likely to be overweight or obese in the first place (almost 3 out of every 4 men in the US).

Looking to eat out without sacrificing your diet? Read these:

While it's clear that listing calories affects how Americans eat out, there's more to menus that could also influence our health.

The same survey showed that only 6 percent of respondents knew what designations like "grass-fed" actually entailed, but almost every person a majority of those surveyed said sustainability and ethical manufacturing was a priority. Only sixteen percent could really identify what "free-range" products were, yet items with these claims can often cost twice as much—or more, according to this NPR report.

Women surveyed said they'd be willing to pay upwards of $2.30 more for "line-caught" tuna tartare due to that specific designation.

The bottom line: Menus play a huge role in how we perceive what's healthy and what's not when we're outside of our kitchens, but new calorie counts on menus seem to be encouraging consumers to think twice about what they're eating. More data and research is needed to prove if America's obesity epidemic will be affected by new initiatives like this one, but this survey suggests that we're off to a good start.

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Calories, like those listed on Starbucks menu items, will soon appear in restaurants across the country. Chris Hondros/Getty Images

It’s finally happening. After nearly a decade of delays, Trump’s Food and Drug Administration is implementing an Obama-era policy on Monday that will require restaurants and other food outlets with 20 or more locations to post calorie counts.

Any big chain — from grocery stores to movie theaters, amusement parks to vending machines to restaurants — will have to show how many calories come with their sandwiches, popcorn, cocktails, beer, wine, and french fries. Up front. Right on the menus.

In some eateries, menu labeling is already happening. Several major chains started to move in this direction voluntarily because the FDA was expected to finalize this regulation years ago. It’s why you can see that the grande latte at Starbucks has 190 calories, the turkey, apple, and cheddar sandwich at Panera has 710 calories, and McDonald’s Big Mac packs 530 calories, for example.

But we’ll now be flooded with calorie data. And while these changes aren’t expected to cause Americans to suddenly clean up their diets, they could have profound indirect effects on how we think about food and nutrition, what we choose from the menu, and ultimately what restaurants serve.

We now get most of our calories from eating out — but it’s been hard to count those calories

Americans do a lot of their eating outside of the home these days. More than half of the money spent on food goes to restaurants and convenient on-the-go meals — not to groceries cooked at home.

Make no mistake: When we dine out, we eat more. People typically consume 20 to 40 percent more calories in restaurants compared with what they’d eat at home.

As Tuft University researchers found, in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, restaurant dishes at non-chain establishments across the country typically contained 1,200 calories — about half of the 2,000 or 2,500 calories recommended for moderately active women and men in an entire day. For these reasons, the American propensity to dine out has been linked with the obesity epidemic.

For a long time, consumers were left to operate blindly when it came to how many calories they were consuming when dining out. Unlike the nutrition facts panels that come with preprepared foods we eat at home, there was no such transparency around restaurant food.

Then along came the Affordable Care Act in 2010. Buried among its many provisions were rules requiring "retail food establishments" with 20 or more locations to post "on the menu listing the item for sale, the number of calories contained in the standard menu item,” as Vox’s Sarah Kliff reported. Another section in the law mandated vending machines "provide a sign in close proximity to each article of food or the selection button that includes a clear and conspicuous statement disclosing the number of calories contained in the article."

The hope was that these regulations would help people calculate how many calories they were eating, and maybe have an impact on obesity.

“Big Pizza” and other food lobby groups tried to fight menu labeling. Then the FDA’s commissioner said he’d get the job done.

The Food and Drug Administration, one of the agencies that regulates the food industry, was in charge of finalizing and implementing menu labeling. But the Obamacare mandates, even under President Barack Obama, were beset by delays because of intense lobbying from various factions of the food industry.

American pizza makers have pushed for, among other things, only posting calories for serving sizes they determine, instead of the actual serving sizes people are going to eat. Convenience stores and supermarkets argued menu labeling, while appropriate for restaurants, would be too expensive and burdensome for them. Movie theaters, for their part, tried to keep their 1,000-calorie popcorns out of the calorie postings.

Finally, in November 2017, the FDA released draft guidance about how the industry would have to comply with the menu labeling by May 2018. Health advocates said they were pleased to see the rule was left mostly intact, which came as a surprise since the Trump administration had pushed back the implementation of the rule just before it was supposed to go into effect a year ago, last May.

The FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has repeatedly pledged his personal interest in nutrition, and his desire to go ahead with menu labeling, which he doesn’t view as a left or right issue, as Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich reported. “I’m quite sure that a lot of conservatives, including myself, have turned over packages in stores to look at the calorie information and the nutrition information and appreciate that that information is there,” he told Politico.

For that reason, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which had sued the FDA over menu labeling delays, put their lawsuit on hold in September.

And Gottlieb kept his word. In a May 2 blog post, he framed the regulation as a win for consumers and a way to enhance competition among food producers to create products that are “healthy, inexpensive . [and] also tasteful.”

“I’ve working on menu labeling for 15 years, and am thrilled that at long last, people will be able make up their own mind about how many calories they want to eat at chain restaurants,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Menu labeling allows people an easy way to cut hundreds of calories or more with simple, split-second decisions.”

The law could have a far-reaching impact, and not just on the food choices individuals make

To date, the evidence on calorie labeling’s impact on health is somewhat mixed. The studies and meta-analyses either suggest that calorie labeling has had little influence over people's food choices or that the available studies are too poorly designed to really tell. A newer Cochrane Review also concluded that the quality of the available evidence is low — leading to uncertainty about menu labeling’s effects — but noted that studies carried out in real-world settings suggest labeling could reduce calorie intake by about 50 calories per meal (or 8 percent of a 600 calorie meal).

Researchers have also found that people who are already calorie-conscious do pay attention to labels, but those who aren't don't. In other words, just having that information displayed doesn't intrinsically change people's behaviors. So health wonks don’t expect most people will immediately start making healthier food choices when menu labels come out.

There’s also the question of whether menu labels are accurate: one study investigated and found that posted calorie counts generally hit the mark, but there was some variation. Nearly 20 percent of foods tested had 100 more calories per serving than the labels stated.

Even so, calorie labeling’s biggest impacts are expected to have little to do with the one-off choices we make at the ordering counter: they could push food companies and restaurants to reformulate products so that they aren’t so hideously high in calories, and shift consumer attitudes about nutrition.

Researchers have found that after menu labeling was implemented in Seattle in 2009, food purveyors tweaked their recipes and lowered calories, for example.

Menu labeling also prompts people to talk about calories — raising awareness about nutrition, as this Health Affairs study pointed out:

For example, a recent article in the New York Times showed that the typical order at Chipotle contains about 1,070 calories—twice as many calories as a Big Mac and “more than half of the calories that most adults are supposed to eat in an entire day.”

Harvard Medical School researcher Jason Block, who has been studying calorie labeling, draws a comparison to how smoking behaviors have evolved over time. “The story about tobacco policies and how smoking patterns have changed is as much a story about changing social norms as it is about specific policies. This widespread implementation of a public education campaign like calorie labeling should change the public’s consciousness about calories.”

We know from the soda tax debate that it’s been hard to disentangle what impact the taxes are having from the awareness the tax debate raised about the health impact of soda. The same may be true about calorie labeling — so perhaps that means that all the discussion about this Obama-era mandate, and the years of news articles about delays in the press, are already having an effect.

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Calorie Counts and Menu Labeling

Margo Wootan, DSc: We’ve been working on menu labeling for the last decade or so, and so there are a number of cities and states that have already implemented calorie labeling right on menus and menu boards at chain restaurants. And a lot of the headlines say that menu labeling isn’t working, but most of those come from small studies, and studies have to be pretty big in order to show dietary effects across populations. So for menu labeling you might expect that people could cut 20, 30 calories per person per day on average. You’re not going to cure the whole obesity epidemic from just one change like menu labeling. And from bigger studies that’s exactly what we see, about a 30 calorie per person per day decrease in calorie intake, which from a population standpoint is really good result. The whole obesity epidemic is probably explained by an extra 100, 150 calories a day. Until menu labeling is in effect nationwide, which will probably be another year or so, we don’t really exactly know what the full impact will be, but having the calories posted will allow people to make their own choices about how many calories. Should they go to one restaurant or another? Should they get the cookie or the scone? Should they get one chicken sandwich over another chicken sandwich? That often times, from a split second decision, just choosing a different size item or a different kind of hamburger, people can cut hundreds and sometimes at sit down chain restaurants, a thousand calories from their order by just choosing a little bit differently. And it doesn’t even have to be significantly healthier. If you order the French fries instead of the onion rings, you could save 300 calories. Order the chicken wings instead of the nachos and save some calories. If you get it instead of the cheese fries, you could save about 2000 calories. So there are so many calories to be eaten at restaurants. The portion sizes are so big that just little changes in what you order could make a big difference to your diet and to your weight. But another key reason why we worked on menu labeling is to try to change restaurants’ behavior. Because right now when they want to add something healthy, often times they’ll just add a salad or a chicken breast, because people will think of those things as healthy options. But once the calories are posted, they could make more subtle changes to the menu to bring the calories down. They could take the cheese out of a salad or off a burger to bring the calories down significantly. They could switch to light mayonnaise or mustard instead of full calorie mayonnaise. They could just make the bread a little bit thinner. There’s so many ways to shave calories off of restaurant foods and with menu labeling, they’ll have an incentive to do that, because people will known what’s in their food.

FDA Says: Menu Calorie Counts are Headed Your Way

You could try closing your eyes, but soon it will prove significantly more challenging to ignore the calories in the foods we order in chain restaurants — sit-down and fast-food eateries, as well as other retail food outlets — across the country.

That's because the Food and Drug Administration has issued new regulations requiring restaurants and retail establishments with 20 or more locations, including convenience stores, movie theaters and even some supermarkets that sell prepared foods, to include calorie-count information on their menus and menu boards.

The rules, which will go into effect in about a year, even extend to pizza chains (much to their dismay), amusement parks and, eventually, vending machines — so pretty much wherever you grab food on the go, the truth will find you. Whether that truth will set you free to indulge with abandon or prompt you to order more healthfully is an open question.

So far, the research about how consumers react to calorie labeling — already in practice in some U.S. cities — has not painted an entirely clear picture.

"In general, the studies show when you put calories on menu boards, only about 30 percent of consumers notice them," Sara Bleich, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, recently told NPR’s The Salt.

However, people who do take note of calorie counts may find themselves pulling back from high-cal options in favor of those that are not diet busters. And those less motivated may still reap the benefits of the new rules: In anticipation, restaurants have been voluntarily adding lower-calorie options to their menus or reducing the calorie content of existing items, Bleich notes, citing her recent study showing that, in 2013, new chain-restaurant menu items clocked in around 60 calories below exiting menu options.

Pros and Cons of Calorie Counts on Menus: Should Your Restaurant Provide Nutritional Information?

Providing calorie counts on menus builds trust among customers and provides information for those with special dietary concerns. Image credit: Unsplash user Dan Gold.

Jenn, the owner and chef of a small cafe serving breakfast and lunch fare in the Bay Area, knew things were changing. In the past six months, dozens of customers had requested calorie counts for her menu items—something she’d never been asked before in her ten years of business. Thinking it would be smart to give her customers what they wanted, Jenn began exploring the options for performing nutritional analysis on her recipes.

Her restaurant industry friends warned her the nutrition analysis process could be complicated, expensive, and time-consuming. Discouraged by her friends’ bad experiences but determined to satisfy her customers, Jenn found herself unsure whether or not to go ahead with adding calorie information to her menu.

If you’re an independent restaurant owner like Jenn, you may also be wondering if it is a good idea to provide calorie counts on your menu. While it will become mandatory in 2018 for chain restaurants with more than 20 locations to provide calorie counts on their menus, small, independently owned restaurants will not be obligated to do so. For those who can decide for themselves, it is important to consider the pros and cons of using calorie counts on menus so you can make the best choice for your restaurant.

Weighing the Pros and Cons of Calorie Counts on Menus

More and more independently owned restaurants are including calorie counts on their menus, especially after the FDA’s delay in enforcing mandatory labeling laws for chain restaurants. A large number of Americans were disappointed with the slowdown, and when small businesses caught wind of the public’s desire for greater transparency from restaurants, many took voluntary action to provide calorie counts on their menus. But some restaurants—especially the ones for whom calorie labeling will be mandatory—were relieved they didn’t yet have to concede.

As a small, independently-owned restaurant, it’s important to be aware of both perspectives so you can make an educated decision about whether to provide calorie counts on your menus.

Some of the benefits of featuring calorie information on your menu include:

  • Building trust among customers: Providing calorie counts on menus signals to customers that there is a level of transparency in your restaurant, making those who are concerned with calorie counts more likely to return and become loyal customers.
  • Aiding in preventing and reversing obesity: More than one-third of American adults are considered obese. Providing calorie counts on menus will make consumers more aware of how much they are consuming and can aid them in their efforts to stick to a restricted or reduced-calorie diet.
  • Meeting consumers desires: A number of consumer reports have consistently revealed that more than half of the American public is in favor of having calorie counts on menus and boards in restaurants. And with this growing interest in health and wellness, we can only expect this number will increase.

Of course, there are two sides to every argument. Many restaurants also complained of the potential drawbacks to putting calorie counts on their menus, including:

  • Limited nutrition information: Calorie counts alone don’t indicate how nutritious a meal is. Some nutrient-rich foods, like nuts and seeds, are high in calories but aren’t bad for your health. Furthermore, healthy whole grains are more calorie-dense than refined grain products. Diners may not consider this when making a selection and could mistake the lowest calorie option as necessarily being the healthiest.
  • Potential financial output: Having dishes nutritionally analyzed can be pricey, especially when using a food lab or independent consultant. Restaurants may also need to reprint their menus and food boards, which contributes to costs.
  • Time investment: If you send your food to a lab, use a labor-intensive CD-ROM software, or contract out to a consultant, it can take up to a month to get nutrition analysis results. The time spent completing this work could take away from important daily tasks.

These drawbacks of providing calorie counts on your menu are valid concerns if you use food labs, independent consultants, or CD-ROMs to perform your nutritional analysis. However, online nutritional analysis software debunks many of these potential downsides.

The Benefits of Online Nutrition Analysis Software

Firstly, while it is true that calorie information isn’t necessarily a good indicator of whether a meal is healthy, online nutrition analysis software provides other extensive nutrition information you can also include on your menu. Software like MenuCalc produces vitamin and mineral values as well as protein, fat, and carbohydrate content. These values are automatically generated along with the calorie count, so you can provide your diners with all the necessary information to make a choice that suits their dietary needs. Nutrient content claims (i.e. low fat ) and allergy statements are also generated for each of your menu items.

Secondly, food labs and independent consultants can be incredibly pricey (usually between $400-$800 per recipe analysis), but online analysis software costs a fraction of that price. Software such as MenuCalc typically has a few pricing options to choose from , but a monthly membership that lets you analyze as many items as you want is as little as $249 a month, and much less if you don’t have as many items to analyze. This makes online software an accessible option for independent restaurant owners.

Lastly, when it comes to time investment, there can be a significant turnaround time with food labs and independent consultants. And for CD-ROMs, the ordering, installation, and training it takes to be able to navigate the complex system can really add up. With online nutritional analysis, however, you can set up your account in a few minutes and start entering your recipes immediately. Results are instantly generated, so there is no wait time.

Because it provides extensive nutrition information while being inexpensive and easy to use, online nutritional analysis software is a great choice for independent restaurant owners, like Jenn, who are interested in voluntarily adding calorie counts to their menus. In the end, Jenn did decide to provide calorie and nutrition information on her menus. Thanks to online nutrition analysis software, it was a quick, affordable, and simple process. And since implementing calorie counts and nutrition information on her menus, she’s expanded her clientele and strengthened her existing customer base. I guess you never truly know what benefits you could reap until you try.

Are you ready to take your restaurant to a new level with calorie counts and detailed nutritional information? MenuCalc provides easy-to-use, affordable nutritional analysis to help you satisfy your customers. Contact us today to learn more.

1500 Calorie Menu

  • Breakfast –ਂ whole grain toast, 1 tablespoon of jelly, 1 teaspoon of butter, 1 cup of tea or coffee, ½ cup of orange juice.
  • Snack – ½ bagel, 1 cup of yogurt.
  • Lunch –ਁ oz of sliced turkey or chicken breast, 1 tossed vegetable salad with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and lemon juice, 1 whole grain roll.
  • Snack – ½ cup of fresh strawberries, 1 cup of yogurt, 1 tablespoon of granola cereal.
  • Dinner –ਃ oz of beef, grilled or broiled, 1 cup of rice, 1 teaspoon of butter, ½ cup of steamed carrots, mixed green salad with olive oil and lemon juice.
  • Snack – 1 apple or orange.
  • Breakfast –ਁ orange, 1 cup of whole grain cereal, 1 cup of milk, 1 cup of strawberries.
  • Snack –ਂ teaspoons of peanut butter, 2 rice cakes.
  • Lunch – 1 cup of vegetable soup, 1 oz of mozzarella cheese, 1 mixed greens salad with olive oil and lemon juice, 1 cup of yogurt, few whole grain crackers.
  • Snack – 1 apple.
  • Dinner –ਅ oz of white fish, baked, broiled or grilled, 1 baked potato, 1 cup of steamed broccoli, mixed greens salad with oil and lemon juice, 1 whole grain roll.
  • Snack – 3 cups of plain popcorn.
  • Breakfast –ਂ pancakes with 1 tablespoon of maple syrup or fruit spread.
  • Snack –ਁ cup of milk, 1 peach.
  • Lunch –ਆ oz of fish, grilled or broiled, mixed greens salad with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and lemon juice, 1 apple, and few whole grain crackers.
  • Snack – 1 granola bar.
  • Dinner –ਂ cup of whole grain pasta, ½ cup of tomato sauce, mixed greens salad with olive oil and lemon juice.
  • Snack –ਁ cup of milk, few peanuts.
  • Breakfast – ½ cup of oatmeal, cooked with 1 teaspoons of brown sugar, 1 cup of milk, 1 orange.
  • Snack –ਁ apple, 2 oz of almonds.
  • Lunch –ਁ oz of sliced chicken or turkey breast, 1 teaspoon of mustard, 1 slices of whole wheat bread, 2 slices of tomato, 1 ½ cup of sliced raw vegetables.
  • Snack – ½ cup of milk, 1 cup of strawberries.
  • Dinner –ਃ oz skinless chicken breast, baked, broiled or grilled, 1 medium baked potato, 2 teaspoons of butter, mixed greens salad with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and lemon juice.
  • Snack –ਁ/2 cup of cottage cheese, 1 pear.
  • Breakfast –ਁ whole wheat bagel, 1 table spoon of cream cheese, 1 cup of orange juice.
  • Snack –ਁ cup of yogurt, 1 apple.
  • Lunch –ਂ oz lean hamburger, grilled or broiled, 1 cup of steamed asparagus, large tossed vegetable salad with yogurt dressing, ½ cup of cottage cheese.
  • Dinner –ਂ cup of pasta with 3 oz of cooked shrimp and 1 /2 cup of broccoli, 1 slice of Italian bread, 1 teaspoon of garlic olive oil, mixed greens salad with oil and vinegar.

  • Breakfast –ਁ poached egg, 1 tomato, 1 whole wheat muffin, ½ grapefruit.
  • Snack –ਁ cup of fruit salad, 1 cup of yogurt, 1 granola bar.
  • Lunch –ਃ oz of sliced turkey or chicken breast, 1 pita bread, 1 cup of sliced carrots and celery.
  • Snack –ਁ peach, ½ cup of cottage cheese.
  • Dinner –ਃ oz of cheese, few crackers, 1 mixed greens salad with olive oil and lemon juice, 1 glass of dry red wine.
  • Snack –ਁ cup of fresh strawberries.
  • Breakfast –ਁ whole wheat toast, 1 hard boiled egg, ½ cup of blueberries, 1 cup of yogurt.
  • Snack –ਁ pear, 1 oz of pretzels.
  • Lunch – 4 oz of cheese, 1 large vegetable salad with olive oil and lemon juice, 1 cup of milk.
  • Snack – ½ cup of fruit salad, 1 granola bar.
  • Dinner –ਃ oz of broiled or baked white fish, 1 ½ cup of rice, 1 cup of steamed vegetables, 2 teaspoons of butter.

This is a well balanced healthy 1500 calorie menu so you can follow it for as long as you need!

Calorie Counts Are Now Mandatory On Menus And People Love/Hate It

Other nutritional information, such as fat and carbohydrate content, must be made available by restaurants, movie theaters, and other businesses that sell food.

Starting on Monday, chain restaurants and other locations across the US that sell food, like coffeehouses and supermarket salad bars, will have to include calorie count information on their menus.

The rule is courtesy of Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act, and is being put into place uninhibited by the current administration. It applies to any restaurant chain with at least 20 locations that have the same name, and it's not just restaurants — the rule includes movie theaters, grocery stores, vending machines, and any location that provides food or drink.

Calories counts are now mandatory on menus, and other nutritional information, such as fat and carbohydrates, must be made available on the premises.

"Consumers can also ask these establishments for additional nutritional information — provided, for example, as a booklet, handout or in electronic form — that includes the amount of sodium, fiber, sugars, total carbohydrates, saturated fat and protein for any standard menu item," according to the FDA.

Although some places around the country have already made this labeling mandatory — notably, New York City — this is the first time it will be enforced nationwide. Some chains have already been providing this information, such as McDonald's, Panera Bread, and Starbucks.

The idea is that people can make healthier dietary choices if they know more about what they're consuming. According to the FDA, people consume about one-third of their calories outside the home.

Research suggests that including nutritional information on menus can reduce consumption by 30 to 50 calories a day, according to the Washington Post.

"I truly believe that knowledge is power and having information can allow consumers to make an informed choice," Vandana Sheth, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told BuzzFeed News.

She said it can be hard to know what's in restaurant food, so the new labeling is especially helpful to people who track what they eat.

"Many of my clients who are trying to eat healthy or trying to lose some weight or watching their blood sugars for diabetes . if they have this information it’s something they can take into account," she said.

Not everyone's a fan though — some see it as government overreach and a burden on business owners. In 2011, Andrew Puzder, the CEO of Carl's Jr., said the rules are "one of these nanny state regulations that’s designed to solve a problem that isn’t really a problem at all."

For many people, however, it's a welcome change.

I'm confused by how many people are vehemently opposed to calorie counts on menus. It's been incredibly helpful for me as I try to stay within my target calories. Ignorance is not bliss in this scenario guys.

05:59 PM - 07 May 2018

Calories on the Menu

In today’s busy world, Americans eat and drink about one-third of their calories from foods prepared away from home. In general, these foods provide more calories, sodium, and saturated fat than meals consumed at home. For the average adult, eating one meal away from home each week translates to roughly 2 extra pounds each year. Over the course of 5 years, that’s 10 extra pounds.

Calorie labeling on menus can help you make informed and healthful decisions about meals and snacks. So, beginning May 7, 2018, calories will be listed on many menus and menu boards of restaurants and other food establishments that are part of a chain of 20 or more locations. This will help you know your options and make it easier to eat healthy when eating out.

Here are steps for making dining out choices that are healthy and delicious:

  1. Find out your calorie needs
  2. Look for calorie and nutrition information
  3. Make the best choice for you

Find Out Your Calorie Needs

Knowing your calorie needs is important to managing your daily food and beverage choices. You can use 2,000 calories a day as a guide, but your calorie needs may vary based on your age, sex, and physical activity level.

To find out your specific calorie needs, use the Estimated Daily Calorie Needs table (PDF: 2.63MB).

Look for Calorie and Nutrition Information

You may have noticed calorie information on some menus or menu boards. Or maybe you have seen nutrition information on restaurant websites or on phone apps. This information can help you make informed and healthful meal and snack choices.

Where will I see the calories?

Calories are listed next to the name or price of the food or beverage on menus and menu boards, including drive-thru windows, and may be at the following types of chains:

  • Chain restaurants
  • Chain coffee shops
  • Bakeries
  • Ice cream shops
  • Self-service food locations, such as buffets and salad bars
  • Movie theaters
  • Amusement parks
  • Grocery/convenience stores

Where will I NOT see calorie information?

  • Foods sold at deli counters and typically intended for further preparation
  • Foods purchased in bulk in grocery stores, such as loaves of bread from the bakery section
  • Bottles of liquor displayed behind a bar
  • Food in transportation vehicles, such as food trucks, airplanes, and trains
  • Food on menus in elementary, middle, and high schools that are part of U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program
  • Restaurants and other establishments that are not part of a chain of 20 or more

What about meals with multiple options?

When a menu item is available in different flavors or varieties (for example, vanilla and chocolate ice cream), or includes an entrée with your choice of side items, such as a sandwich that comes with either chips, side salad, or fruit, the calorie amounts will be shown as follows:

Two Choices
Calories are separated by a slash
(for example 250/350 calories)

Three or More Choices
Calories are shown in a range
(for example 150-300 calories)

Will information about other nutrients also be available?

In addition to calorie information, covered establishments are also required to provide written nutrition information such as saturated fat, sodium, and dietary fiber to consumers upon request. So, when eating out, don't hesitate to ask for more nutrition information if you need it.

Make the Best Choice for You

Eating healthy comes down to personal choices. Try these tips to help you make the best choices for you and your family.

Comparing calorie and nutrition information can help you make better decisions before you order.

Side dishes can add many calories to a meal. Steamed, grilled, or broiled vegetables and fruit are often lower-calorie options. With calorie information, you can make the best choice for you.

Calorie information can help you decide how much to enjoy now and how much to save for later.

Asking for sauces or salad dressings on the side lets you choose how much to use.

Foods described with words like creamy, fried, breaded, battered, or buttered are typically higher in calories than foods described as baked, roasted, steamed, grilled, or broiled. Use calorie information to help you make the choice that is right for you.

Calories from beverages can add up quickly. With calorie information, you can find lower-calorie options.

Calorie Counts on Menus: Good or Bad Psychology?

My husband and I were having dinner with friends from out of state the other night. They had taken an elderly relative to a restaurant where calorie counts were listed next to every item on the menu. “Is it true that this is the law now in NY?” they demanded. “It’s completely crazy! Made us not want to eat anything!”

Regulations requiring chain restaurants to post calories on their menus are national, although some states have stricter requirements than others. But are they actually helpful? Or is there a possibility that they could do some serious damage to individuals already struggling with eating issues? Might there be a better way to manage the unhealthy eating that is traditionally served up and practiced in many of these restaurants?

Recent research suggests that the answers to these questions are “yes,” “yes” and “yes.”

In one study reported in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine and the Health Behavior News Service, customers in some fast food restaurants and coffee shops were cutting back on calories, often in the form of “add-ons” like sour cream on tacos and additions to coffee drinks. However, in sandwich and burger restaurants, there seemed to be little impact. Not surprisingly, women were more conscious of the calorie counts than men.

According to the report in Health Behavior News, “130 million people dine out daily in the U. S. and it’s estimated that the average U.S. adult eats 4.8 meals per week in restaurants.” Further, “nearly half of all food dollars are used to buy meals outside the home with a third of total calories consumed each day coming from out-of-home food.”Thus it would seem that changing eating habits outside of the home would be crucial to changing weight and eating issues. Yet is calorie counting on menus the best solution?

The dinner conversation with our friends reflected the findings in the research. The women noted that the calorie count made them more conscious of what they would eat. The men said they would ignore it. Someone said that it would take all of the pleasure out of eating and someone else said that they would feel so resentful and rebellious that they would probably over-eat just to prove something , even if they didn’t know who they were trying to prove it to.

Several of my clients who struggle with eating issues say that having the calorie count doesn’t do a thing for them – except, in some cases, to make them feel more ashamed of what they eat. This might seem like a good incentive for someone who is struggling to control his intake, but shame seldom works as a deterrent. If it did, most people who binge eat would have stopped long ago.

Furthermore, for those people who struggle with anorexia or restrictive eating, shame simply reinforces the idea that they are doing a good thing by not eating – even though they actually need to consume more calories.

According to a research group based at Texas Christian University, most studies do not show any evidence that that calorie counts listed on menus significantly changes calories ordered or consumed. They are among a growing group of nutritionists and scientists suggesting that instead of calories, menus display the minutes of exercise needed to burn off the calories in any item listed. Will this work any better? It’s difficult to say.

My own experience, after working in the field of eating disorders for more than thirty years, is that calorie count, whether it’s what we eat or what we burn off, is not the issue. Certainly, most people still do not really understand what healthy eating is all about, and education is paramount. But it will not change cultural and family traditions of binging on huge amounts of unhealthy food as part of any celebration. Nor can it impact the underlying psychological issues that drive much overeating.

Many, many people find comfort and soothing in large quantities of high fat, high calorie food. Others derive a sense of self-worth in their ability to restrict their food intake – even to the point of starving to death. Posting either calories or exercise on menus will not change any of that.

So what can we do? I think it’s time to recognize that to focus on calories, either consumed or burned, is not enough to change our eating behavior. It is important to change our national unhealthy eating behavior. Education, starting with very young children, is crucial. What that education is, however, is still unclear. I would suggest that it has nothing to do with calorie count, but learning more about healthy portions would probably help a lot. It is part of our culture to think of more as better – educating ourselves and our children to taste and appreciate each bite of a more limited amount could be a useful approach.

It would also be helpful to let go of thinness as the holy grail of health. As a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association tells us, healthy bodies come in all sizes – as do unhealthy ones. Oz Garcia, writing for the Huffington Post, says it: “Being thin does not equate to good health.” As an example, he notes a study reported on that some lean people have a higher risk than their overweight friends of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

This of course does not mean we should start eating more fatty foods and stop exercising. But it does mean that we need an overhaul of our national and personal attitudes towards health and beauty. Susie Orbach’s classic book Fat is a Feminist Issue is, paradoxically, no longer just about women. It’s about our attitudes and our psychology. It’s about what we understand about health and general well-being. It’s about marketing and choice. In a fascinating article in the New York Times Michael Moss tells us that junk food companies have learned that people may talk about healthy eating (which changes, by the way, from concern with fat to concern with sugar to concern with hormones to concern with something else), but that what we buy is what tastes good to us. And that generally includes sweet, salty and fatty foods.

As I have studied and written about the psychodynamics of eating behaviors, I have become convinced that the way we eat is directly tied to how we soothe ourselves. Eating behaviors can feed on themselves, so to speak, and can become habitual and even addictive soothing techniques. So maybe it’s time for us to look not at what the restaurants, news, politicians and big businesses are telling us about the foods we eat, but to consider our own needs. And what is really best for us.

Dinner recipes

We have more than 30 delicious, flexible dinner ideas with step-by-step and instructions to help you make quick, healthier family dinners.

And to get you started, we have a special selection of recipes for each day of the week all updated to include just the essential ingredients.

It only takes around 30 minutes to get food on the table for many of them, and we've made it easy to see which ingredients are "swaptional", so you know when you can swap ones you don't have for ones you do, or just leave them out entirely &ndash perfect for when you need a quick dinner with what you have to hand.