Low-calorie restaurant menus: Are they making us fat?

April 15, 2014

Depending on our food cravings, the number of items served, and even the time of day, ordering a meal at a restaurant often requires a "narrowing down" decision making process. According to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research, restaurants that now provide "low-calorie" labels on their menus can inadvertently cause people to eliminate healthy foods right off the bat.

"Because most are quite complex—offering numerous dishes composed of multiple ingredients—diners try to simplify their decision. People have come to expect low-calorie food to taste bad or not fill them up," write authors Jeffrey R. Parker (Georgia State University) and Donald R. Lehmann (Columbia University). "We propose that by calorie organizing a menu, restaurants make it easier for people to use the general 'low-calorie' label to dismiss all low-calorie options early in the decision process."

In four online studies, the authors asked to order food from menus similar to what they might encounter at well-known chain restaurants. Some participants were shown traditional menus that listed available dishes in food-type categories (with no on the menu). Another set of participants was given the same menus, but with calorie information provided by each dish. A third group was given the calorie-labeled menus with the low-calorie dishes grouped together and given a low-calorie section label.

Study results showed that the participants who were given the traditional menus without any calorie information and the menus with the low-calorie food grouped together ordered food with similar amounts of calories. Interestingly, the participants who ordered from the calorie-labeled (but not grouped) menus ordered meals with fewer calories overall.

"When a menu is calorie posted but not calorie organized, it is less likely that the caloric-content of the dishes will be used as an initial filter for eliminating large portions of the menu," the authors conclude. "For the consumer, this means you are more likely to consider ordering a low-calorie dish and also more likely to eat it too."

Explore further: Recommended calorie information on menus does not improve consumer choices, study shows

More information: Jeffrey R. Parker and Donald R. Lehmann. "How and When Grouping Low-Calorie Options Reduces the Benefits of Providing Dish-Specific Calorie Information." Journal of Consumer Research: August 2014.

Related Stories

Recommended calorie information on menus does not improve consumer choices, study shows

July 18, 2013
Despite the lack of any concrete evidence that menu labels encourage consumers to make healthier food choices, they have become a popular tool for policymakers in the fight against obesity.

Consumers largely underestimating calorie content of fast food

May 23, 2013
People eating at fast food restaurants largely underestimate the calorie content of meals, especially large ones, according to a paper published today in BMJ.

Nutrition guidelines needed for full-service restaurant chains

January 8, 2014
Food prepared away from home is typically higher in calories and lower in nutrition than food prepared at home, but it now makes up more than one-third of all calories purchased in the United States. Consumers tend to view ...

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 ...

FDA head says menu labeling 'thorny' issue

March 12, 2013
(AP)—Diners will have to wait a little longer to find calorie counts on most restaurant chain menus, in supermarkets and on vending machines.

Peer pressure can influence food choices at restaurants

October 25, 2013
If you want to eat healthier when dining out, research recommends surrounding yourself with friends who make healthy food choices. A University of Illinois study showed that when groups of people eat together at a restaurant ...

Recommended for you

Sugar not so sweet for mental health

July 27, 2017
Sugar may be bad not only for your teeth and your waistline, but also your mental health, claimed a study Thursday that was met with scepticism by other experts.

Could insufficient sleep be adding centimeters to your waistline?

July 27, 2017
Adults in the UK who have poor sleep patterns are more likely to be overweight and obese and have poorer metabolic health, according to a new study.

Vitamin E-deficient embryos are cognitively impaired even after diet improves

July 27, 2017
Zebrafish deficient in vitamin E produce offspring beset by behavioral impairment and metabolic problems, new research at Oregon State University shows.

The role of dosage in assessing risk of hormone therapy for menopause

July 27, 2017
When it comes to assessing the risk of estrogen therapy for menopause, how the therapy is delivered—taking a pill versus wearing a patch on one's skin—doesn't affect risk or benefit, researchers at UCLA and elsewhere ...

Blowing smoke? E-cigarettes might help smokers quit

July 26, 2017
People who used e-cigarettes were more likely to kick the habit than those who didn't, a new study found.

Brain disease seen in most football players in large report

July 25, 2017
Research on 202 former football players found evidence of a brain disease linked to repeated head blows in nearly all of them, from athletes in the National Football League, college and even high school.

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.