Are calorie counts on fast food menus effective?

Cristen Conger

Does knowing the calories in french fries dissuade us from ordering them?
Does knowing the calories in french fries dissuade us from ordering them?
Flickr/Fuzzy Gerdes

I typically steer clear of fast food restaurants, so when I find myself in line for a hamburger and fries, the last thing I want to look up and see is the atrocious calorie count staring me in the face. If I've made it into a McDonald's or whatnot, there's a good chance that it's because I'm on a road trip, and one of the best parts of road tripping in my book is cruising through a fast food joint and ordering whatever I want. Calories shmalories, I tell myself -- until I look up and see all those shmalories on the menu and reconsider whether I really will have fries with that shake. For me, in other words, menu labeling ruins my good time because I'm apparently its prime audience: a person who actively reconsiders an order upon seeing calorie counts.

study on menu labeling

It may have a greater effect on women than men

Partly because of folks like me (women?), mandatory menu labeling is part of the Affordable Care Act that larger restaurant chains will have to implement in 2014. Starbucks is getting ahead of the game with its announcement that it will start offering calorie counts next to all of its beverages beginning Tuesday, and maybe I can now finally convince my boyfriend that his beloved white chocolate mocha is NOT a wise choice. But for the broader population, does menu labeling make a public health difference? If people are frequenting fast food/beverage spots to begin with, does offering them the nutritional info upfront persuade them to sub out a salad for those fries?

TIME magazine's Alexandra Sifferlin reports that the research has been mixed: "Studies do show that people tend to underestimate the amount of calories they consume, especially while eating out. Last month, researchers reported in BMJ that diners who frequented fast food chains like McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, KFC, Subway and Dunkin' Donuts, thought they consumed far fewer calories than they actually did; adults and kids underestimated the caloric content of their meals by 175 calories, while adolescents were off by 259 calories."

calorie-rich nuts