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Do Calories on Menus Change Behaviours?

sharma-obesity-calories-fast-food-menuRegular readers may recall a recent post regarding the Ontario Government’s announcement to introduce legislation requiring labelling of menus with calories (at least in chain restaurants).

But does this change behaviour?

This issue was now examined Hammond and colleagues from the University of Waterloo, Ontario), in a paper published in Preventive Medicine.

To test the hypothesis that nutrition labeling on menus will increase awareness, use, and food consumption, the researchers conducted a blinded randomized trial in 635 Canadian adults, who were asked to order a free meal from one of four experimental menus: 1) no nutritional information shown, 2) calorie amounts only, 3) calorie amounts in “traffic lights”, and 4) calorie, fat, sodium, and sugar shown in “traffic lights”.

It turns out that Participants in the calorie conditions were more likely to recall the calorie content of meals and to report using nutrition information when ordering.

Although the calorie content of meals was not significantly different across conditions, calorie consumption among participants in the Calorie-only condition was about 100 kcal less than that in the No information condition.

In contrast, adding “traffic lights”, fat, sodium, and sugar amounts to menus had little impact compared to calorie-only labeling.

These findings certainly lend support to the notion of putting calories on menus (something I have previously advocated for).

How effective such measures will be outside of the rather artificial environment of a study certainly remains to be seen.

If only there was not always this discrepancy between what works in the laboratory (efficacy) and what actually works in practice (effectiveness).

Zurich, Switzerland

ResearchBlogging.orgHammond D, Goodman S, Hanning R, & Daniel S (2013). A randomized trial of calorie labeling on menus. Preventive medicine PMID: 24113263




  1. I like calories on a menu. It certainly helps me choose appropriately and I feel much happier having that control. Also, I think that restauranteurs may modify their menus and recipes to have more healthier choices or healthier ingredients and or preparation methods. I guess though it would take away from the menu in certain settings like very formal restaurants like for example the Fairmont Hotel MacDonald or Banff Springs.

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  2. Dear Dr. Sharma. I fully agree with your last sentence in this article:

    “If only there was not always this discrepancy between what works in the laboratory (efficacy) and what actually works in practice (effectiveness).

    …and Calogenetic Balance works in practice, as you might have seen at the ECO2013 in Liverpool… Best regards fro Basel (near Zürich!).

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  3. Restaurants (with some exceptions for smaller businesses) are required to provide calorie counts here in Seattle, and I’m immensely grateful. I’ve seen some national chain restaurants offer the calorie information in a separately-printed supplement to their menus, nicely bound, similar to a separate wine list.
    I may not always choose the healthiest option on the menu, but when I want to do so, at least I have the information available to make an educated choice. Also,
    I wonder about the validity of a study where the participants were offered a FREE meal, it seems like that alone might alter behavior.

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  4. I love having calories on the menu. I’m pretty disciplined in my eating and knowing exactly what’s on my plate makes that much easier. We generally avoid eating out, since restaurant meals are too big and few places within Canada provide any sort of nutritional information. When we do eat out I’ve learned to order a side dish instead of a meal, which helps a lot, but solid information would be better.
    We’re in Hawaii at the moment, and not eating completely on plan, but by cooking most of our own meals in our hotel room (a small rice cooker is a wonderful thing) we’re in a position to choose treats when out. A single scoop ice cream after a hike won’t do me in – regularly eating in restaurants will.

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  5. My sister and I ate at McDonald’s.
    She berated me because I ordered a hamburger and coffee while she ordered “only” a muffin and coffee.

    According to the menu, my hamburger had 250 cals and 12 g protein and her muffin had about 400 cals and 5 g’s protein. (My numbers are approximate, but nutrition info is on the back of McD’s placemats, posted in the store, and online.)

    I don’t apologize for going to McD’s. It’s nice to go out to eat sometimes, even if people who can afford fancier places sneer at you.

    Protein is important for me because I’m losing weight and protein is important. Dr Sharma article years ago, about 2008, says people losing weight need more protein per kg of body weight. (I think I got that right, though perhaps research has since disproved that but I missed the update.)

    Yay for restaurant nutrition info, especially for me, cals and g’s protein!!

    ps I don’t work for or have any contact with McD’s except as customer.

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  6. What were the meals they were offered? Were they very similar in caloric content or varied from a very healthy to very poor choices? I would think, if the caloric content was very similar through menu items, one would not be so concerned about calories as with their favourite choice. After all they’d get the same calories regardless. On the other hand, a healthy option may make for a better choice to those who have a concern for their health.

    Seeing some of the other label items is key as well. Some of our fast food friends are offering wonderful chicken and salad items that make us think “Healthy Option”, but these choices actually boast far more “fat” content or in some cases, they load more than 1000 mg of sodium to what you think is a “healthy choice” SALAD! Only seeing one side of the story is misleading, and misinforming!

    A few restaurants in our area simply place a tomato or denotation beside the “healthy” Menu items (less than x # grams of fat, calories, or sodium)

    I agree too that a simple and universal symbol system is needed to simplify the complexities associated with trying to read labels.

    There are apps out there now too that show you full nutitional information on just abouty any menu item or purchased food product. Many simply scan the bar code with your phone and you get full info!

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