Listing Calorie Counts on Restaurant Menus Might Not Help Us Eat Healthier, According to New Research

Here’s why skimming past that calorie count can be a good decision.

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Reviewed by Dietitian Jessica Ball, M.S., RD

There’s something satisfying about whipping up a meal in your kitchen. Whether you enjoy choosing a recipe or getting experimental, cooking your own food is healthier for you, and it can support your overall well-being. But let’s be honest—it’s probably not realistic to cook every meal at home.

In fact, most Americans get more than a third of their caloric intake from foods and beverages that they enjoy outside of the home, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). (That makes sense—after all, sometimes you just need to swing by Starbucks for a Pedro Pascal-inspired six shots of espresso.) If you’re a regular restaurant-goer, you may have noticed that many coffee shops and eateries post calorie counts on their menus, usually right next to the price, to help inform customers of a dish’s nutritional info.

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Restaurant chains are required to post calorie counts next to all their menu items these days—that’s been the case since 2018, when the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) began mandating the practice for certain kinds of eateries. The decision to make those calorie counts more accessible to customers was supposed to help folks make healthier decisions—but a new study found that those calorie counts may not have much of an impact.

The research, a new study published on July 9 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found that calorie labels on menus have only a “modest” impact on the way we order at restaurants. The study used data from more than 3,000 people involved with the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, in which folks were asked if they noticed calorie labels on the menu at specific restaurants they visited and if they actually used that information to decide what they should order. The survey also collected information about overall diet quality.

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Using a 100-point scale called the Healthy Eating Index (HEI), the researchers found that folks who used the menu calorie labels scored four points higher on overall diet quality than those who didn’t use the calorie counts. On the HEI scale, only differences of five points or more are considered “clinically significant.” Researchers also found that about 70% of folks either don’t notice or don’t use the calorie labels on menus at all.

Folks who need to be especially conscious of the number of calories they eat might find menu calorie counts helpful, but you shouldn’t let that number make all of your ordering decisions for you. A simple calorie count can’t really capture how healthy a meal is—and if you’re aiming to find something that feels light and fresh on a restaurant menu, you might be better off scanning the ingredients for fruits, veggies, healthy fats and whole grains. The calorie count also can’t capture how much sodium, saturated fat and added sugar a dish contains, which means folks who need to opt for heart-healthy or diabetes-friendly options won’t get the whole picture based on one number.

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Plus, everyone deserves to enjoy the foods they love without feeling guilty about the number of calories they contain. If you’re craving a delicious burger or that saucy pasta dish from your favorite local spot, you shouldn’t let calorie counts keep you from treating yourself to a great meal out. There’s always room for the meals you love in a healthy eating pattern—that’s what we love about accessible eating philosophies like intuitive eating and the Mediterranean diet.

The Bottom Line

If you’re dining at a chain restaurant or coffee shop, calorie counts must be displayed on the menu, and there should be a more detailed set of nutritional information available if you ask. That can be really helpful if you need to be especially aware your dietary needs, but you shouldn’t let it keep you from enjoying the food you love. A study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that menu calorie labeling has very little effect on what folks order. But since everything can be a part of a healthy eating pattern in moderation—and since a calorie count can’t quite capture the nutritional value of a dish—skimming past the calorie count is totally fine.

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