Consumers largely underestimating calorie content of fast food

May 23, 2013, British Medical Journal

People eating at fast food restaurants largely underestimate the calorie content of meals, especially large ones, according to a paper published today in BMJ.

From 2006 to 2010 many American states and cities passed laws requiring chain restaurants to print on menus. The US and Affordable Care Act of 2010 included a provision that will require all restaurant chains with more than 20 US sites to print calorie content on menus.

Previous research has shown that adults and children underestimate calorie content often by large amounts. However, these studies did not monitor consumer choices at restaurants or focused on a narrow range of or individuals.

Researchers therefore carried out a large cross sectional study of repeated visits to fast food restaurant chains in 89 restaurants across the New England region of America: McDonald's, , Wendy's, KFC, Subway and Dunkin' Donuts. At the time of data collection, none of the chains routinely printed calorie content on menus.

Researchers enrolled a diverse group of adults (>18 years old), (aged 11-20) and children (3-15 years old). They collected receipts from participants to calculate the calorie content of their meals, and they administered a short questionnaire which included a question asking participants to estimate the calorie content of their meal. Parents provided answers for the school age children. The final sample size was 1877 adults, 1178 adolescents and 330 school age children.

Among adult participants, 65% were either overweight or obese, as were 34% of adolescents and 57% of school age children. Less than one quarter of participants reported noticing calorie information in the restaurants, and less than 5% reported using it to help them choose their meal.

The mean calorie content of meals was 836 for adults, 756 for adolescents and 733 for children. On average, adults, adolescents, and parents of school-age children underestimated calorie content by 175 calories, 259 calories and 175 calories, respectively. Two thirds of all participants underestimated the calorie content of their meals with approximately one quarter underestimating the calorie content by at least 500 calories. Participants consuming high calorie meals underestimated by a greater amount than small calorie meals. Underestimation was greater among Subway diners than at any other chain. Adults and adolescents eating at Subway underestimated by 20% and 25% more than those at McDonald's.

The researchers conclude that adults, adolescents and parents of school age children generally underestimate the calorie content of meals, especially large meals and when eating at Subway restaurants. They say that the "forthcoming calorie menu labelling requirements of the US Patient Protection and Act might help to correct underestimation of calorie content".

The researchers suggest that in addition to providing calories on menus, policymakers could perhaps improve menu labelling by supporting social marketing campaigns to better explain the concept of calories.

Explore further: For adolescents, Subway food may not be much healthier than McDonald's, study finds

More information: Consumers' estimation of calorie content at fast food restaurants: cross sectional observational study, BMJ, 2013.

Related Stories

For adolescents, Subway food may not be much healthier than McDonald's, study finds

May 8, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—Subway may promote itself as the "healthy" fast food restaurant, but it might not be a much healthier alternative than McDonald's for adolescents, according to new UCLA research.

Individual and small-chain restaurant meals exceed recommended daily calorie needs, study shows

May 13, 2013
As the restaurant industry prepares to implement new rules requiring chains with 20 or more locations to post calorie content information, the results of a new study suggest that it would be beneficial to public health for ...

Calorie counts on menus have small but promising effects

May 15, 2013
Menu labeling has made more people aware of how many calories are in restaurant meals and has some people reducing their intake, according to new research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Calorie information in fast food restaurants used by 40 percent of 9-18 year olds when making food choices

May 22, 2013
A new study published online today (Thursday) in the Journal of Public Health has found that of young people who visited fast food or chain restaurants in the U.S. in 2010, girls and youth who were obese were more likely ...

Menu labels displaying amount of exercise needed to burn calories show benefits

April 23, 2013
More restaurants are displaying calorie information on their menus than ever before. It's not a coincidence; by law, retail food establishments that are part of a chain with twenty or more locations nationwide must disclose ...

Fast food menus still pack a lot of calories, study finds

November 13, 2012
With grilled chicken, salads and oatmeal now on fast food menus, you might think fast food has become healthier. And indeed, there has been greater attention in the media and legislatively, paid to the healthfulness of fast ...

Recommended for you

Wine is good for you—to a point

January 18, 2018
The Mediterranean diet has become synonymous with healthy eating, but there's one thing in it that stands out: It's cool to drink wine.

Sleep better, lose weight?

January 17, 2018
(HealthDay)—Sleeplessness could cost you when it's time to stand on your bathroom scale, a new British study suggests.

Who uses phone apps to track sleep habits? Mostly the healthy and wealthy in US

January 16, 2018
The profile of most Americans who use popular mobile phone apps that track sleep habits is that they are relatively affluent, claim to eat well, and say they are in good health, even if some of them tend to smoke.

Improvements in mortality rates are slowed by rise in obesity in the United States

January 15, 2018
With countless medical advances and efforts to curb smoking, one might expect that life expectancy in the United States would improve. Yet according to recent studies, there's been a reduction in the rate of improvement in ...

Teens likely to crave junk food after watching TV ads

January 15, 2018
Teenagers who watch more than three hours of commercial TV a day are more likely to eat hundreds of extra junk food snacks, according to a report by Cancer Research UK.

Can muesli help against arthritis?

January 15, 2018
It is well known that healthy eating increases a general sense of wellbeing. Researchers at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) have now discovered that a fibre-rich diet can have a positive influence ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.