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Study Shows Far-Reaching Benefits of Menu Calorie Labeling

Menu calorie count

 

Chris Hondros / Staff / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • A new study suggests calorie labeling on menus could have major health benefits.
  • Researchers also noted that healthcare and societal costs may improve due to lower levels of obesity.
  • There are ways to limit calorie consumption without feeling deprived or risking a yo-yo effect.

In 2018, the U.S. government mandated that all major chain restaurants include calorie counts on their menu items, as a way to increase consumer awareness and potentially reduce calorie intake. Now that it's been a few years for them to put that into action, researchers are looking at whether it makes any difference to see those calorie counts on a menu board. Spoiler: It really does.

A study just published in Circulation suggests this simple change may save thousands of lives, and prevent tens of thousands of new cases of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

They estimate that, because of the reduced incidence of excess weight, the law could have these effects by 2023:

  • Prevent 14,698 new cases of heart disease
  • Prevent 21,522 new type 2 diabetes cases
  • Add 8,749 years of life in good health

These numbers came from a simulation that proposed consumers would eat just 7% fewer calories at an average restaurant meal than they do currently. The simulation also noted half these "saved" calories would likely be offset by additional calories eaten at home, which means diners would need to drop their restaurant calorie amounts by only 3.5% to see health benefits.

In addition to health factors that may improve as a result of greater calorie-consumption awareness, the research model also put some financial predictions into the mix. Researchers estimated the labeling law would produce $10 - $14 billion in healthcare cost savings, and another $3 - $5 billion in what they call "societal cost savings," such as work productivity.

Why This Works

Why such a dramatic outcome? It's related to how most people have a tendency to underestimate the number of calories they're eating, especially when dining out, says Candice Seti, PhD, clinical psychologist, and certified nutrition coach.

She says the gap between how much you think you're eating, and how much you're actually consuming, can happen even when healthy foods are involved. "Many times, asking people to track their calories for a short amount of time, like a week, is very eye-opening for them," she says. "But it's the first step in understanding how food is affecting you." 

Also, the recent research suggests, restaurants have been responding to less demand in high-calorie options by reformulating their dishes to be lower in calories, which could expand the number of choices for restaurant visitors.

Getting Smart with Calories

Given the significant, negative health risks that have been associated with being overweight or obese—for example, in addition to diabetes and heart disease, obesity increases the chances of some types of cancer, and has even been linked to more severe COVID-19 symptoms—being aware of daily calorie intake is an important part of weight maintenance, says Michelle Abbey, RD, a registered dietitian.

However, it's also important to use calorie tracking or awareness as a tool or a resource, not an opportunity to feel bad about how much you're eating, she suggests.

Michelle Abbey, RD

Limiting calories as a way to deprive yourself and say you were 'good' today based on your calorie amount can backfire in a dramatic way. This can lead to a swing in the other direction, where you seek out high-calorie foods as a reward and then suffer from effects like inflammation, fatigue, and digestive distress. It can wreak havoc on your body and set you up for a yo-yo effect.

— Michelle Abbey, RD

Here are some ways to use calories without setting yourself up for dangling on that yo-yo:

  • Determine the calorie amount that's tailored to you, based on your activity level, age, and sex. Use this calculator as a starting point.
  • Try to avoid being too rigid about your exact daily calorie amounts and see the total as a ballpark amount. Remember that your calories will likely fluctuate from day to day.
  • If you want a cookie, eat a cookie, Abbey says. Occasional indulgences and treats will not tank your overall calorie totals when viewed from a weekly or monthly perspective.

What This Means For You

Ultimately, you should view calorie amounts on menus as a useful tool for making informed nutritional decisions based on your health or weight loss goals. They should not be the end all be all of what you choose to consume, but a single piece of the puzzle. "Think of them as just one more piece of information that guides what you eat," says Abbey.

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  1. Liu J, Mozaffarian D, Sy S, et al. Health and economic impacts of the National Menu Calorie Labeling Law in the United States: A microsimulation studyCirc Cardiovasc Qual Outcomes. 2020;13(6):e006313. doi:10.1161/CIRCOUTCOMES.119.006313

  2. Cai Q, Chen F, Wang T, et al. Obesity and COVID-19 severity in a designated hospital in Shenzhen, ChinaDiabetes Care. 2020;43(7):1392-1398. doi:10.2337/dc20-0576