Nutritional Information on Restaurant Menus – Does it make any difference?

IHOP menu

Almost a year ago, New York City enacted legislation that forced all fast food restaurants to begin printing calorie counts on their menus.

At that time, there was a lot of squawking from the restaurateurs about the effectiveness of the new bylaw.

Since then, quite a few different communities have adopted similar legislation.

And still, the restaurateurs (and others) question if these bylaws have done anything to improve the eating habits of their patrons.


So, have they?

According to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Researchpeople will make healthier choices if restaurants provide nutritional data.

The Science

Researchers found that “using only the sense of taste, smell, and sight to accurately estimate the levels of calories, saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium found in a typical restaurant food serving is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for most consumers.”

No surprise there. Countless studies have shown that people habitually underestimate how many calories they eat per meal / day.

So, they set out to examine how providing calorie and nutrient information on restaurant menus and menu boards influences consumers’ food-related evaluations and choices.

They looked at how participants’ prior expectations came into play and whether providing calorie and nutrient information after the meal changed their future food choices.

The researchers found that providing nutritional information can influence subsequent food consumption, especially when consumers’ expectations are not fulfilled when they examine the information.

“When a ‘great taste’ claim was used to describe a restaurant menu item, the provision of calorie information did not affect consumers’ perceptions, presumably because foods that claim great taste are typically expected to be relatively high in calories”.

Translation: People know that the Quadruple Bypass Burger is loaded with calories, salt, saturated fat, etc, and counting calories is the last thing on their mind. For these customers, nutritional info printed on a menu is a waste of time.


Quadruple Bypass Burger from the Heart Attack Grill
Quadruple Bypass Burger from the Heart Attack Grill


“On the other hand, when a ‘low calorie’ claim was presented but the menu item was higher in calories than expected, the provision of nutritional information increased the perceived likelihood of 1) gaining weight and 2) developing heart disease.”

The study shows that nutritional information can help consumers moderate their eating over time. In one study, participants ate a sandwich that they later found was unexpectedly high in calories. After this discovery, the participants consumed fewer snacks throughout the rest of the day.

Translation: Customers concerned about the amount of fast food calories that they inhaled at lunch cut back on their intake for the rest of the day.

They didn’t cancel their trip to McDonalds, they just skipped the afternoon coffee & muffin to make up for it.


Based upon the current research, nutritional info printed on fast food menus:

  • Is a useful tool for people that are concerned about the quantity & quality of the food that they eat.
  • Is irrelevant to those people who don’t give a damn


Related Posts



Like this article???

If you like this article, don’t forget to subscribe to @healthhabits. When you subscribe, my friends at MailChimp will make sure to send you an email every time I post something new here at the blog.

As well, you also get access to the series of Supplement Reports that I am publishing this year.

button subscribe

One comment

  1. Great info. Thank you. I’ve actually wondered if this really affected people’s choices.

    I’m wondering though if it is not so black and white with everyone. It certainly isn’t with me.

    Usually when I go out to eat it is in the expectation that I’m going to eat what I want and enjoy myself.

    There have been times, however, when I’m eating out more than in and I make a concious choice of whether I’m going to enjoy a “triple bypass burger” or take advantage of the nutrition information offered.

    The idea that in order to be fit you need to be in a state of constant vigil and self-denial is not very productive in the long run. One needs to learn self-regulation rather than self-control.

  2. i was always conscious about my Diet Calories because i cannot afford to become fat and flabby:~.

  3. of course when you dont have time to cook, fastfoods would always be the best option `,.

  4. I don’t think the nutritional information sways a decision, people going to fast food understand that its not the healthiest choice but it does provide the outlets motivation to think about nutrition when rolling out new products and for the customers perhaps they can choose the best of the worst..

  5. As a restaurant consultant, do you see health/nutrition as a growing trend in the restaurant business OR is it all political correctness?

  6. It’s been said already that everybody knows at this stage that eating fast food on a daily basis is bad for both your health and your waistline. I don’t think this is going to have any significant affect on obesity, any more than putting “SMOKING KILLS” on a packet of cigarettes has on incidents of lung cancer, or having the ABV % on bottles of alcohol has on alcohol-related illnesses.

    I work with people who suffer from eating disorders and the affect this has on those sufferers is not just unhelpful, but quite harmful. They have started to introduce nutritional labelling on menus over here (Ireland) and although only a handful of restaurants have joined in, I already see the negative impact it has on those in recovery – see this post on our self-help website to see the reaction:

    If I want to eat out, I KNOW that I’m probably not going to be served up a low-calorie dish – nor do I want to spend a lot of money on lettuce leaves either! It’s about enjoying these things in moderation.

    By the way, where on earth is that menu, pictured above, from? 1200+ calories for an omelette??? What the hell are they putting in there???

  7. I agree that the belief that all we need is education to help us break our “bad habits” is shortsighted at best.

    We all know that smoking is bad and that drinking and driving is bad and that eating every day at McDonald’s is bad, etc….. And yet, a lot of us smoke, drive under the influence and eat at McDs on a regular basis

    I am curious as to why you believe that nutritional info on menus would be harmful to people with eating disorders.

    I would love to learn more.

    BTW, the menu is from IHOP…an American institution

  8. I think Knowing the nutritional values in restaurant foods is a great tool. My roommate and I are trying to watch how many calories we take in a day and try to eat healthy but there are some days when we feel like eating out and being able to look at the nutrition in restaurants helps us to plan our meals beforehand so we make good decisions about what we are eating.

  9. Healthhabits,

    Those in recovery from eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder/compulsive over-eating, ortherexia etc.) link their self-worth to their weight and also how much they eat, which is, more often than not, measured by calories.  If they eat more than their ‘allowed’ calorie quota, they are left with extreme feelings of guilt.  Guilt leads to (sometimes life-threatening) behaviours i.e. over-eating and/or purging, restriction, over-exercising etc.  

    One of the goals in recovery is to break this link and to break the obsession with calorie counting.  Having the calorie count of foods on menus obviously does not help matters.  Seeing the number increases the feelings of guilt and, as I said above, increases the risk of associated behaviours.  Many sufferers report that the media’s obsession with calories or a friend/family member’s obsession with calories is what kick-started their disorder.  In our practice, I have seen children as young as 4 years old present with eating disorders.  Often it will be a school’s/pre-school’s ‘Healthy Eating’ programme which triggers it (‘good’ foods vs ‘bad’ foods – back to the guilt again!).  My own 5 year old came home with a Pedometer the other day!  WTF!!!  Give them a jump rope, pogo stick or trampoline and let them be kids for gods sake!  When I see that poor kid in the picture above, I just feel so unbelievably sorry for him.  He is not that way because he’s ‘greedy’ or whatever, there is obviously something physically or psychologically wrong there, and I’d bet my life on the latter.  

    My second point is, calories are only one SMALL part of the bigger, nutritional picture!!!  Sufferers, like dieters,  need to be re-educated about nutrition as they often have extremely distorted views of what their bodies need and what’s normal.  When someone is so very obsessed with calories, they disregard every other micronutrient and macronutrient.    Firstly, all calories are not created equal, which is something I think I remember reading here too…?  Many dieters will choose the high sugar, low fat option to conserve calories but I’d rather see someone snack on 200 kcals of walnuts than 100 kcals of boiled sweets!  They may have taken in more calories by eating the nuts but are going to feel greater satiety, their blood sugar levels remain stable (therefore no cravings later) and you have spoken about the affects of insulin on weight gain so you know what I’m talking about.  People, we need to start listening to our bodies again!  Look at babies and young toddlers; they eat when hungry and stop when full.  If they over- or under-eat, the reason is rarely to do with normal appetite regulation.  It can be anything from illness (from a basic cold to more serious problems such as Prader-Willi syndrome), to over-production of oxytocin in breastfeeding mothers (causing the baby to, well, “fall asleep at the wheel” so to speak!), to distraction (play is more fun than eating!) and so on.  Re-learning how to listen to your body can take a long time (in some cases years).  We often stopped listening to our body’s normal signals at a very young age because either we were told to eat past satiety (“Don’t leave the table until your plate is empty!”) or food was linked to emotions/worth (“If you’re good you can have candy”. “If you’re bold, you go to bed with no supper/you don’t get dessert”).  Fast-forward to adulthood: telling yourself you’re only allowed xx Kcals at dinner is eating with your head and not listening to what your body needs.  Whether I’m working with anorexics or over-eaters, the first question they need to ask themselves is, “What does my body NEED?”.  By constantly using this question, and working on becoming aware of the body’s sensations, usually a sufferer will become far more in tune with their body and the result is a healthy, slim body.  I am working in this area for over 10 years and I suffered from eating disorders for about 15 years so I know it works!

    I just want to point out here that eating disorders are NOT about wanting to be thin!  It is NOT a vanity issue, a diet gone a bit too far.  It is, at its most basic, an expression of the persons self-hatred, “I am not worth the most basic self-care”, whether it’s starving the body of nutrients or abusing it with bingeing and/or purging, laxatives, over-exercising etc.  Often the condition will convince the person they’re not even worth a shower, brushing they’re teeth, or other very, very basic acts of self-care.

    Sorry this post is SO long. I’m just rather passionate about the subject!!!

    P.s. The link I put in my last post is an eating disorder self-help website and it’s a post, from sufferers, in reaction to Ireland’s introduction of calorie count on menus.

Comments are closed.