Are Calorie Listings on Menus Helpful?

Kate Chury RD Dietitian NW Calgary Alberta

You’ve probably seen them by now - menus with calorie amounts neatly listed right next to the menu items. These caloric listings are an attempt to combat the ‘obesity epidemic’ but are the a helpful tool for consumers? Could they be doing more harm than good?

Depending on who you talk to you will get a variety of thoughts this topic. However, before I get into these more subjective pros and cons of calorie listings, let's take a look at what the research says. In 2015 there was a meta-analysis looking into exactly this topic - do calorie listings on menus influence the total calories ordered? In other words, does having the calorie listing available for customers at the time of ordering influence their food choices. Overall, they found it did influence how people ordered BUT not to a significant degree. They found that having the calories listed on menus resulted in an overall 18 calorie (kcal) deficit in calories ordered. Just to put that into perspective, according to the USDA the average women needs anywhere between 1600-2400 kcal/day, while the average man may need between 2000-3000 kcal/day. So, considering what the “average” person needs, an 18 kcal deficit really isn’t that significant.  

But wait, before we close the book on the question of whether or not calorie listing are worthwhile, this meta-analysis was only able to look at a piece of the puzzle, the calories ordered. There are no studies looking into the long-term impact of caloric listings on menus. As well, I think it’s fair to say that although this meta-analysis found only an 18 kcal deficit associated with calorie listings, this is an average. For some people, the caloric deficit could have been much higher AND for these specific people, the caloric listings on menus may very well impact there overall intake. In fact, one study found that 27% of people actually used the caloric information on menus to make food choices. While this is not a huge number (as in, not being used by the majority of people), it does show that almost a third of customers were using this information while ordering. It could be, for this minority of customers, that their lower caloric menu choices were overshadowed by the majority of people not paying attention to the nutrition information.

If we could dig a little deeper, it would be interesting to find out who these people are who are using this nutrition information. Could it be that the third of customers using this caloric information are also those with specific goals of losing weight? We know that not everyone needs, or wants to, lose weight. There are even underweight people looking to gain weight. For these people, the caloric listings could be irrelevant or used in a completely different manner from which they are intended. This could easily skew the results showing that having calories on menus doesn’t make a significant difference, when in fact, for a certain population they may.

Another gap in the research is whether or not having menus with calories influences consumer intake or weight in the long-term. Could it be that if someone orders a particular high calorie dish at one meal, that they will compensate for it by being a little more thrifty with their energy intake on a subsequent meal? This is the kind of information that we still need to know. 

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Now, let’s move on to some of the more subjective pros and cons of having calories listed on menus:

CONS

FOOD IS MORE THAN CALORIES

Food is more than calories. Calories are a piece of the nutritional puzzle, for sure, but they aren’t everything. Calories don’t tell you about the nutrient content or quality of a food. Calories, or food energy, come from the 3 macronutrients in food - carbohydrates, protein and fat. The micronutrients, like vitamins and minerals, don’t give us anything in the way of energy, therefore, won’t influence or be reflected in the calories.

While reducing foods to just calories can be helpful when you are looking to monitor overall energy intake, it really isn’t everything we need to know. There can be really nutritious foods with higher calories (like avocados and nuts), and low calorie foods with little nutritional value (like rice cakes and diet soda). We need look at food as a way to nourish our bodies and the caloric content should be taken into consideration along with the overall nutrient content.

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IT FOSTERS AN UNHEALTHY PREOCCUPATION WITH FOOD

The truth of the matter is that we are living in a world that places an unhealthy amount of time and energy on dieting. Just take a stroll down any magazine aisle and you’ll be inundated with magazine covers promising to reveal the next new (and easy!) way to lose 10 lbs or stories of people’s weight loss successes. Then there’s also the weight loss and dieting messages we encounter through social media, TV and the diet-obsessed people in our lives. And now, grabbing a bite at certain restaurants has turned our focus once again onto how many calories are being consumed, and taking us away from the enjoyment of actually eating.

Food and weight preoccupation is a serious problem. According to the National Initiative for Eating Disorders, up to 20% of young women engage in unhealthy eating patterns such as dieting, purging and binge eating. A 2015 study by Common Sense Media found that an astounding 80% of 10 year old girls have dieted. These numbers do not include people have been diagnosed with a clinical eating disorder. For people vulnerable to these ‘weight loss’ and ‘eat less’ messages, the constant bombardment of caloric listing can be harmful.

 

MOST PEOPLE DON’T ACTUALLY KNOW HOW MANY CALORIES THEY NEED

Do you know how many calories you need in a day? I mean, do you actually know how many calories you need? I’m a Registered Dietitian and I don’t honestly know how many calories I need. I have a ballpark number in mind, but I don’t know how many calories my body needs to function. 

While there are equations that we can use to estimate our caloric needs, they are just that, estimates. Everyone is different - different genetics, different body size, different lean mass percentages, different activity levels and so on. There is a huge amount of variation in what we, as individuals, need. These calculations can give us an idea but they aren’t exact in my experience. And yes, there are fancy machines which can give you a more accurate picture of caloric needs but these devices are expensive and you probably won’t have access to one.

Why do I bring this up? Well, without knowing exactly how much we need in terms of calories as a overall goal, choosing foods based on calories is making a decision with only part of the information. While most people may just choose the item with the lowest calories and assume this is the best option, some people could unnecessarily be depriving themselves thinking that they need less calories than they do. 
 

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FOCUSING ON CALORIES DOESN’T ALLOW YOU TO LISTEN TO YOUR INNER HUNGER AND FULLNESS CUES

One of the problems with dieting is that it relies on external cues to control dietary intake. This is why diets, for the most part, don’t work. When your body is on a diet, it often will rebel against the rules set up to control it. This can lead feelings of failure, cycles of emotional eating and, you guessed it, more dieting. From a mental health perspective, this is bad news.

What’s lost in those who have spent a lifetime dieting is the ability to listen to their own hunger and fullness cues. We are all born with an innate ability to regulate our hunger but as we grow up, and are subjected to various “food rules”, we start to turn a deaf ear to those inner cues.

Wondering what can be done to rebuild this connection with your body’s inner ability to nourish itself? Well, one thing is to stop relying on things like counting calories. Another is to learn intuitive (or mindful) eating, a practice which allows us to take the focus off external diet rules and focus inward. For more on intuitive eating, read this.

 

FOCUSING ON CALORIES TAKES THE ENJOYMENT OUT OF A MEAL

This point doesn’t need much explanation, does it? One of the great things about food is that it’s enjoyable to eat. We derive pleasure from food, and that’s not a bad thing.

Let’s get real here, when choosing food from a menu with calorie listings, you’ll probably narrow down the food to two choices:

  1. the food you want, or
  2. the food you think you should probably have, based on the calories, of course.  

No matter which food you choose, it’s a good possibility that the enjoyment level will be dampened. You’ll either be left thinking you’ve made the wrong decision (i.e. you should have chosen the “healthier” option) or left feeling less than satisfied with your meal because you really didn’t order what you wanted. Or maybe that's just how I feel?



PROS

IT CAN BE HELPFUL FOR THOSE EATING OUT FREQUENTLY

For those who don’t eat out frequently, their restaurant food selections likely won’t make a huge difference in the long-term. Choosing the occasional high calorie meal isn’t going to tip the scales. For those who do frequently eat out, however, having an awareness of what you are eating can make a big difference.

Restaurant meals are notorious for serving bigger portions and being higher in calories than one would generally eat at home. Several studies have found that eating out more often is associated with a higher body mass index (BMI). As such, it makes sense for those who are frequently eating restaurant meals to make use of posted nutritional information. For these specific people, a caloric deficit or surplus each day can and will make a difference, whether they are looking to lose, gain or maintain their body weight.

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ACCESS TO NUTRITION INFORMATION IS A GOOD THING

No matter your health and nutrition goals, I think it’s important to have nutrition information accessible. There are a number of health conditions that would benefit from a little more transparency on the menu. Whether you are looking to lose or gain weight, or watch your sugar, sodium, or potassium intake (or whatever your nutrition goals are), it would be helpful to have access to this information at restaurants, just as it is helpful to have the nutrition facts label on the back of foods we purchase from the grocery store.


IT COULD ENCOURAGE RESTAURANTS TO SERVE HEALTHIER FOOD

As I’ve mentioned above, restaurant meals have a reputation for being higher in calories than the majority of home-cooked meals. This makes sense as they have formulated their recipes to be appealing, which often means ample use of ingredients containing fat, sugar and salt to please their customers (and keep them coming back!). This also means that restaurant meals often go beyond what we need from a caloric perspective.

While I haven’t seen any evidence that restaurants will reformulate their menu to be healthier because of posted calorie listings, it is possible that if people stop ordering certain high calorie menu choices that restaurants may be motivated to change their recipes to be healthier. Wouldn’t that be nice?

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FINAL VERDICT

While the research has not found that calorie listings on menus makes a significant difference in the number of calories ordered, there is still a gap in evidence of whether access to this information makes a long-term impact on consumer health.

It is clear that there are valid arguments both for and against having this information posted. For some individuals it could be helpful to have access to this information while for others, it could be harmful and perpetuate a culture of disordered eating. Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear ‘we should’ or ‘we shouldn’t’ do this. It really comes down to the fact that we can’t really please everyone and that no two people’s health goals and vulnerabilities are alike. It is clear, though, that we do need more information on the long-term implications (whether good or bad) to really know if listing calories on menus is truly worth it.

What about you? What do you think? Do you like having calorie listings on menus? Do you find it useful?