Blackboard in Restaurant Open Kitchen

Calorie Counts on Menus do Make a Difference

Key Takeaways

  • Displaying calories on eating out menus influences consumers to make lower calorie choices
  • Showing calories on menus has also encouraged retailers to provide lower calorie options

Hands up who enjoys eating out at a nice restaurant now and then? And do you favour a grab-and-go lunch instead of a packed lunch at work?

Then read on . . .

Comprehensive new research has proven that, when the calories for our meals are displayed on the menu, it makes a difference to the choices we make.

Introducing Calories to Menus

It was around 2009 when the Food Standards Agency prompted many well known food chains in the UK to start displaying the calorie content of all food.

Health campaigners backed the idea, saying it was a crucial step in helping combat the UK obesity crisis. But people in the hospitality industry were more than a little sceptical.

The chief of the British Hospitality Industry, Bob Cotton said:

“We have serious concerns about this latest initiative. There is no evidence, either in this country or New York that demonstrates that the display of calories on menus will result in consumers changing their diet.”

This new study however, provides the evidence showing that calories on menus actually do result in consumers changing their diet – by choosing the healthier option.

Interestingly, showing calorie information is not mandatory in the UK, but is being pushed in the USA. Most Australian states have made calorie info mandatory as well as New York City, USA.

The Study

A trio of researchers from large Australian universities collated 186 studies on the effect on consumers of displaying calories on menus, as well as 41 studies on the effect of retailers.

What Did They Find?

Researchers found that displaying calorie information encouraged the reduction of 27 calories per meal for consumers, and 15 calories per menu item by food retailers.

This may not seem a large amount. Lead research Dr Natalina Zlatevska points out that it isn’t much of a reduction if you eat out only once a year.

However, for those who eat out regularly it can make a real difference over a year. For example:

Dinner Once a week 1404kcal ½lb
Dinner Twice a week 2808kcal ¾ lb
Lunch 3 times a week 4212kcal 1½lb
Lunch 5 times a week 7020kcal 2lb

Being calorie conscious whilst eating out could help you avoid eating up to 2 pounds worth of extra calories!

During the research, they discovered the impact of calorie displays was greater for women, with 60 fewer calories per meal. For those who are overweight, a reduction of 83 calories per meal.

Zlatevska is more than happy with the findings of their study as she feels that “anything (they) can do to educate consumers, and make them a bit more aware of their choices is a good start”.

As well as helping consumers make healthier choices, researchers discovered that displaying calories on menus can also affect what retailers offer their customers.

Those retailers that had calorie information available for customers, also had healthier options available than the retailers that didn’t supply the information.

Good menus gone bad

Unfortunately, no laws have been passed to make it mandatory for food chains to display their calorie information in the UK. As of this year a few restaurants have chosen to take calorie counts off their menus:

  • Prezzo
  • Strada
  • Zizzi
  • Pizza Express
  • Frankie & Benny’s
  • Cafe Rouge
  • Wetherspoons

Although a couple still show a ‘less than 600 calories’ option within their menu – Zizzi, Pizza Express – it is disheartening to see outlets making information harder to find for customers.

What You Can Do

Even when you are watching your weight and calorie counting, you can still enjoy eating out without blowing your diet.

  • If you buy lunch from food outlets most days, try making homemade lunches. They’re easy to make, cheaper and you can calculate calories
  • If you’re going out to eat, choose somewhere that you know displays calories on their menus
  • If you’re eating out and the menu doesn’t show calories, WLR can help. Our food database has an extensive eating out section so you can check your choices beforehand
  • If there are no calories and you’re worried, try to avoid deep fried dishes, pastry, rich sauces, cream or lots of cheese

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Wallop, H. 2009. Restaurants to display calorie counts on menus to help obesity crisis. The Telegraph.

Zlatevska, et al. 2017. Mandatory calorie disclosure: A comprehensive analysis of its effect on consumers and retailers. Journal of Retailing

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