Seeing a full day’s worth of calories attributed to a single menu item might not be the deterrent to unhealthy eating that policymakers thought it would be. As it turns out, Americans are pretty good at ignoring nutritional facts when it comes to beloved fast-food items.
Research has shown that four years after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) started requiring chain restaurants to post calories on their menus, the regulation hasn’t had much effect on our dietary choices, according to NBC News. The most recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that obesity rates have actually risen during the time period, going from 30% in 1999 and 2000 to 42% in 2020.
One major contributing factor to the obesity epidemic is how much Americans are eating out, which is now far more than ever before. Not only that, but fast food restaurants are a bigger part of that diet, too.
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To combat these growing numbers, Congress passed the Nutrition Labeling of Standard Menu Items at Chain Restaurants law in 2010, which required chain restaurants to display calorie counts on menus across the nation. The law was intended to inspire people to make better choices with what they eat.
After an 8-year delay due to restaurant and grocery industry pushback, the law finally went into effect on May 7, 2018.
In 2020, the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management found that between two full-service restaurants — one with nutritional data posted on the menu and one without — researchers could only find a 3% reduction in calories when calories were displayed on the menu.
When it comes to fast food and teenagersa 2011 study indicated that while most teens saw the nutritional data, only about 9% of them were influenced by the information.
However, while the policy may not have inspired consumers to make healthier orders, it did change chain restaurant menus for the better. According to an investigation published by The Journal of the American Medical Association, adding calories to menus may have contributed to an average reduction in calories of newly introduced menu items. New menu additions tend to have about 113 fewer calories now compared to new items introduced prior to nutritional labeling.
While studies on obesity and menu labeling are still ongoing, the calorie counts on menus can be useful for those that are already tracking their calories and looking to make healthier choices.
Amber Lake is a staff writer at Eat This, Not That! and has a degree in journalism from UNF in Jacksonville, Florida. Read more