Have restaurant calorie guides resulted in restaurants making healthier choices for diners? If your New Year’s resolution was to eat healthier, try ordering a recently added menu item at your favorite chain restaurant, instead of a long-time favorite.

That advice comes from a new study to determine if the requirement that chain restaurants list calorie counts on menus has made dining out a healthier option. This study finds that menu items introduced after calorie labeling went into effect in 2018 contained about 25% fewer calories on average compared to dishes introduced before labeling.

Requirement for Restaurant Calories Guides

A provision of the U.S. Affordable Care Act requires that restaurant chains with 20 or more U.S. locations must post the calorie content of prepared foods on menus alongside the item’s price, researchers said in background notes.

Prior research has found that people eating out have cut their calories slightly — 4% to 6% on average — in response to the new labeling, according to the paper. But it hadn’t been clear how the restaurant industry responded to the labeling requirement, in terms of shaking up their menus and offering lower-calorie options.

Study on Effect of Restaurant Calorie Guides

• For this study, lead scientist Anna Grummon from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and her colleagues analyzed the calories of more than 35,300 menu items sold at 59 large chain restaurants in the United States between 2012 and 2019.
• The chains included such names as Qdoba, Chipotle, Burger King, IHOP, Dunkin Donuts and KFC, she said.
• The researchers found that restaurants didn’t change their formula for existing menu items in the face of calorie labeling. Dishes that had been on the menu beforehand had the same calorie content going forward.

• But new dishes offered after menu labeling went into effect tended to contain an average 113 fewer calories, or about 25% less, than the calories of foods introduced before the requirement, the researchers reported.

Researcher’s Study Analysis

• The labeling law is potentially leading to consumers having more lower-calorie options.

• The findings indicate that restaurants are slowly guiding their patrons toward a healthier diet.

• They’re slowly introducing healthier food options.

• That’s exciting, because they’re not trying to force it down people’s throats.

• They’re going to walk with the consumer and help them change.

• Behavior change is a process. It’s not an overhaul.

• They haven’t jumped in and tried to scare the consumer, but at the same time they’ve recognized their opportunity and their responsibility.

People who want to eat out in a healthier way should review a restaurant’s menu online beforehand and find a handful of items that look yummy and are lower-calorie. That way, you’ll be aware of the more nutritious options available to you when you place your order.

Click here to learn more about restaurant calorie guides.