Fight Fat with Calorie Counts?

The pros and cons of a proposed menu-labeling law.

September/October 2009

By Christine Boyd

Fast Food Salad

Calorie counts are already required on menus at chain restaurants in New York City and California. Similar legislation is pending in other states and cities. The U.S. Senate has proposed a federal menu-labeling law. But does knowing how many calories you’ll be eating change your order?

Pros: Listing calorie counts eliminates guesswork. Consumers underestimate the calories in restaurant foods by up to 956 calories, according to a study in the American Journal of Public Health. Most chain restaurants display calories on a poster or website, but it’s only information available at the point of purchase that impacts choices, says Marlene Schwartz, Ph.D., deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale. Having to post calories may encourage restaurants to offer lighter options, she says.

Cons: Calories on menus didn’t affect fast-food choices of nearly 600 people, according to a study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.

Our Verdict: Calorie counts could be a useful tool for consumers. Even if you go for a burger, fries and shake, knowing that number may encourage you to eat lighter at your next meal.