Make the Most of Calories on Menus

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There they are. Those three (or four, yikes!) little numbers next to your cheat-meal of choice that will leave you re-thinking how badly you want to blow your diet—or so we thought. 

Previous studies have shown that calorie counts on menus isn’t enough to result in people ordering lower-calorie meals. As a result, the growing thought among the health-conscious is that perhaps the issue lies with consumers not knowing how to use the information they’re given without some guidance. 

Julie Downs, an associate research professor of social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, conducted an experiment to test whether or not offering people general calorie guidelines alongside calorie-counting labeling in restaurants could improve the way people order. Participating customers were randomly given reading material either suggesting a total daily intake of 2,000 calories for women and 2,400 for men, material explaining that a single meal shouldn’t pack more than 800 calories, or no information at all.

Those who received overall caloric information chose to eat more calories, not fewer. The researchers speculate that when the customers see the recommended caloric intake and compare it to the number of calories listed next to an a-la-carte item on a menu, they realize the item (alone) isn’t unreasonable and then go ahead and add on a drink and side item—leaving them with a number of calories above and beyond what it should be. Overall, consumers don’t realize that calories add up. "In the end the bigger issue is that asking people to do math three times a day every day of their lives is a lot," Downs adds. 

Next time you’re out to eat, remember to total the calories of everything you’re ordering. Sure, counting calories is pretty labor-intensive, but it’s nothing compared to the workouts you’ll need if you don’t start passing on those extra calories.

Do you use calorie information on menus?

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