Ailts: How calorie counts on menus could reshape our eating habits

The FDA is offering consumers a way to be more conscientious, and we should take notice.

Ellen Ailts

Food establishments have until May 7 to comply with U.S. Food and Drug Administration requirements to provide calorie information for consumers, an Obama-era policy that’s experienced almost a decade of delays. In February, the House passed legislation amending requirements that food establishments provide calorie counts. One change includes allowing businesses to provide calories per serving instead of disclosing the total number of calories per dish. The legislation also allows food establishments, whose customers largely eat off-premises, to only post calorie information online.

The amendments were made to assuage the controversy of the requirements proposed for the restaurant business. For one thing, food establishments have to pay to analyze the nutritional content of their food in a lab setting, as well as create new menu boards with calorie information. Another reason is that restaurants don’t want to give up the secret behind why their food tastes so good. (Hint: lots of fat and salt.)

But restaurants should be subject to this law; it’s an important step toward making us all more aware about what we’re putting into our bodies. We’ve reached a point where more people are increasingly conscientious about the foods they eat, especially among younger generations. For those people, this requirement is great news. 

It’s also good news for people who don’t spend time counting calories. While this new requirement will be a helpful tool for some, a study conducted by Carnegie Mellon showed that most people still choose the food they like, regardless of calorie count. However, another study showed that restaurants with calories displayed on their menus were actually encouraged to offer lower-calorie food. Ideally this new requirement would make consumers more thoughtful about the choices they make, but it will at least improve our options. 

If this change inspires us to seriously consider the way we nourish ourselves, especially when dining out, it will be a near-revolutionary cultural transformation. Since more than half of the money Americans spend on food goes to restaurants and take-out meals, most of our food choices occur outside the home. Consumers often underestimate calories, and as Tuft University researchers found, the average dish at non-chain restaurants across the country has an average of 1,200 calories. Our cultural tendency to dine out is undeniably linked with our obesity epidemic.

No longer do we have to make blind decisions in restaurants, and nor should we. Increasing the transparency of restaurant dining can only help us in our attempts toward deliberate consumption. While the change won’t convert everyone into a health-conscious nutrition guru, our culture certainly needs an overhaul in terms of the way we think about food. In thinking about this issue, it’s important to recognize that the data help illuminate the real-life effects of calorie labeling. But if the result of this change yields mere consideration on behalf of both consumers and restaurants, then this slight adjustment is an important step in the right direction.