Imagine you’ve had a busy morning, you’re hungry and opt to grab some lunch at a restaurant around the corner. You’re about to order when you notice the menu board includes the calorie counts for each item. Yikes! You realize that little meal is going to account for almost half your daily calorie requirements! Do you choose something lighter – or do you shrug, sigh and proceed with your original order?
That’s what researchers examining the impact of menu labeling would like to know. In recent years, menu labels – including nutrition information about menu items – were introduced in North America in response to what is seen as a direct correlation between rising rates of obesity and increasing reliance on restaurants (1;2). Eating out may be convenient but there’s a health-related catch: people who frequently eat at fast food restaurants are likely to gain weight (3) as portions tend to be large and many of the menu options include high amounts of calories, fat, sodium and added sugars (4). Menu labeling is designed to help people make more informed food choices and ideally, encourage healthier selections (5).
Is it working? To help answer that, a systematic review of 17 studies looked into whether menu labeling influences the types of food ordered and the amount of calories people eat in restaurants and cafeterias (6).
What the research tells us
The evidence shows that posting "informative" labels such as the calorie counts of menu items does not appear to be enough to influence food choices (6). Calorie counting can be challenging and requires a high level of “health literacy” not to mention mental math skills. However, "interpretive" menu labels that help put calorie counts into context do appear to impact the type and amount of food people ordered and consumed (6).
Some examples of interpretive labelling that works: providing the recommended total daily calorie allowances for an average adult as well as calorie counts per item; using "traffic light" colours to highlight options containing high, moderate or low amounts of fat, sodium, sugar and/or calories; or pairing calorie counts with an estimate of the number of minutes or miles of walking necessary to “work off” the same number of calories. Sixty extra calories may not sound like much, but you may reconsider your options if the menu suggests you take an extra 20min walk to expend that energy!
So, if you’re trying to cut calories or make healthier diet choices, look for interpretive menu labels as a helpful way to identify and opt for healthier foods.
Looking for other ways to avoid eating too much? Size does matter! People who are offered food and beverages in larger quantities tend to consume more than if they are served smaller amounts (7). Ordering smaller portions and having foods served on small plates can help prevent overindulging.
Dining out can be part of a balanced lifestyle. Choosing from among the menu’s healthier options and keeping portions to a reasonable size allows you to enjoy your restaurant meal without worrying about jeopardizing your health or weight.