Low-Calorie Menus Could Be Making Us Fat

When lighter options are grouped together, diners opt for heavier meals.

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Based on research by Jeffrey Parker and Donald Lehmann

A new item is set to become a fixture on menus across the United States this fall, and it’s not the much-discussed flat white. In November of this year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will begin requiring an estimated 2,000 chains operating 20 or more locations across the country to prominently post the calorie count of every dish they serve on all menus. For time-strapped diners trying to lose a few pounds, that could be a good thing, but new research shows it all depends on how restaurants implement the rules.

Under experimental conditions, calorie-labeling reliably leads to consumers making healthier choices. In a recent simulation, Jeffrey Parker and Donald Lehmann found that diners presented with calorie-labeled menus ordered, on average, 15 percent fewer calories than those who received a menu with no calorie information. But evidence from the real world has been mixed.

In 2008, New York City rolled out the first calorie-labeling rules in the nation, becoming a living laboratory for public health researchers. Comparing the period before and after the New York City rules rolled out, researchers found a slight decline in calories purchased at three chains, no change in seven, and an increase at one — Subway, which rolled out its “$5 Footlong” campaign just as the rules were coming into effect. The results suggest that what matters isn’t just that calorie information is presented, but how it’s presented — a topic on which the new regulations are largely mum.

Ironically, Lehmann and Parker, a former Columbia PhD student now at Georgia State University, found that when lower-calorie dishes were grouped together under a single “healthy options” heading, the benefits of calorie labeling were virtually erased.

These “calorie-organized” menus, which feature sections like Subway’s “Fresh Fit Choices” and Applebee’s “Weight Watchers, Under 500 Calories,” have become more common as chains respond to growing consumer demand for healthier options. While prominently calling out low-calorie dishes might be expected to result in diners making healthier choices, Lehmann points out that it also changes the way diners consider their options.

When considering a traditional menu, diners will generally decide on a few possible alternatives before settling on a final order. When calorie information is included on the menu, it allows diners to include that information while evaluating the tradeoffs between a set of concrete options — like a turkey burger and a double-bacon cheeseburger.

Calorie-organized menus, on the other hand, force diners to make an early and abstract decision. Given that the less healthy consumers believe a dish to be, the better they expect — and experience — it to taste, calorie-organized menus present diners with a difficult choice: Do I want something healthy? Or do I want something delicious? In Parker and Lehmann’s study, for the more than 70 percent of respondents who failed to even look at the “healthy choices” section of a calorie-organized menu, that answer was obvious.

There is one bright spot in the study, however. When diners considering calorie-organized menus were forced to wait just 40 seconds before ordering, they ordered nearly 225 fewer calories. In other words, by doing nothing more than considering the menu for less than a minute, you could lose around two pounds a month. The best hope for diners’ waistlines then might be a longer line at the register.

About the researcher

Donald Lehmann

Professor Lehmann teaches several different marketing courses. His research focuses on individual and group choice and decision making, the adoption of innovation and new...

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