Not So Fast, Food: Calorie Counts Sway Diners

It's the classic fast-food dilemma: Do you stick with the small fries or splurge on the large? What if the latter means an extra 270 calories? Though the restaurant industry remains skeptical, a new study finds that seeing calorie information may convince customers to place healthier -- or at least smaller -- orders.

In the study, published today in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers surveyed more than 7,300 fast-food customers in New York City. Their average purchase totaled 827 calories. That's a Burger King Double Whopper Sandwich With Cheese (hold the mayo).

What's worse, one-third of customers bought 1,000 calories or more. At that rate, just two meals fulfill the recommended daily intake of 2,000 calories. Go for three, and hit nearly 3,500 calories — equivalent to a whole pound of weight.

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But when Subway customers saw calorie information before ordering, they purchased an average of 52 fewer calories than customers who overlooked the calorie counts. Translation: They went for the 6-inch turkey sub instead of the steak and cheese.

At the time of the study, Subway was the only restaurant that posted nutritional information near the register. So while 32 percent of Subway customers reported seeing calorie information, only 4 percent at other chains saw it.

The researchers say that calorie-posting can make a difference, but only if restaurants are upfront with the numbers.

"People need to have information posted prominently," says lead study author Mary Bassett, deputy commissioner of the Division of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Fast-Food Nation

The average American eats three meals a week from fast-food establishments, according to the NPD Group, a consumer market research firm.

"We all need to eat, and we all need fast food," Bassett says. "We lead very busy lives, and it's very convenient."

But many people don't realize that they're packing on the calories. Fewer than 15 percent of New Yorkers could identify the highest or lowest-calorie items on a chain restaurant menu in a poll released today by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

"It's very easy to walk into a fast-food chain and walk out with your entire daily calorie intake, and you think you've just had breakfast," Bassett says.

Because the New York City study was based on a survey, the results can show only that calorie displays are associated with lower-calorie purchases, not that they're the reason for them. But experts still say the findings are clear: Knowledge equals power for consumers.

"If we build menu boards that provide meaningful information about the food people are putting into their bodies, many people will use the information to help guide their choices," says David Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine. "In this case, ignorance of calories and nutrients is anything but bliss. It's epidemic obesity and diabetes."

Restaurants' Response

Over the past two years, more than 20 cities and states have considered legislation involving menu-labeling policies. Varying versions have been adopted in San Francisco, King County in Washington, Santa Clara County in California and New York City. However, the New York State Restaurant Association is challenging the New York City Board of Health's regulations.

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