THE DETAILS: Researchers from New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene surveyed nearly 11,000 customers in 13 fast-food chains—McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Subway, Au Bon Pain, KFC, Popeye's, Domino's, Pizza Hut, Papa John's, Taco Bell, Starbucks, and Dunkin Donuts—across 275 New York City locations in the spring of 2007, and another 12,000 customers earlier this year. They gave each customer a $2 Metrocard in exchange for his or her register receipt and completion of a brief survey.
What they found was that customers who read the calorie information on menu items posted in the chain purchased an average of 106 fewer calories than those who said they didn't notice the postings—754 calories' worth of food as opposed to 860 calories' worth. The difference was most pronounced at Burger King, and burger joints in general, where customers who read the posted info purchased 152 fewer calories, on average, than those who didn't. Fifteen percent of the customers surveyed said they saw the info on calorie counts and used it when making their orders.
WHAT IT MEANS: Posting calorie counts changes the context in which people decide what to buy, notes Lynn Silver, MD, assistant commissioner in the Bureau of Chronic Disease Prevention and Control at New York City's Department of Health. "It makes [their] default decisions healthy." In non-MD-speak: It works.
The research contradicts an earlier New York University study of the city's menu labeling requirements, which showed that the postings may have increased awareness of calorie content, but not a decrease in calories purchased in lower-income and minority neighborhoods. The Department of Health researchers parry by saying their study was more representative of the city as a whole, and people in general. And in it, they see reasons to hope that a widespread improvement in eating habits is possible. "Dietary change is likely to come gradually," says Dr. Silver, "but it will start with consumers interested in making informed, healthy eating decisions."
Here's how to take advantage of this phenomenon and make informed, healthy eating decisions:
• Pay attention to posted calorie counts. Make it standard practice to read them and take a moment to absorb them before you order your food in a restaurant. It's highly likely you'll order less as a result. If the info isn't posted, ask for a brochure, or check online before you go out. You can also keep the listings from your favorite eateries in your bag or car for reviewing as needed.
• Read food labels in the grocery store. Take the results from this study and apply it to your time in the aisles. Odds are, you'll make healthier, more informed buying decisions and eat healthier as a result.
• Bone up. Confused by food labels? To find out what they really mean, check out the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's labeling primer. Click on "Consumer Information" to find out how food labels can help you choose food wisely. And check out Rodale's Eat This, Not That! series of books for comparisons of the calorie counts and other nutrient information for thousands of supermarket, fast food, and restaurant options.