Not So Fast, Food: Calorie Counts Sway Diners

Chuck Hunt, executive vice president of the association's New York City chapter, says that restaurants are happy to provide nutritional information. They will even reveal fat, sodium and carbohydrate content along with calorie facts. But they want to do it their own way — on Web sites, posters or tray liners, instead of on the menu board as the regulations require.

Many nutrition experts say that restaurants are trying to hide the facts.

Putting nutrition information on tray liners and posters is like "putting [the speed limit] on the back of a speeding ticket," says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at CSPI. The information is inaccessible and unusable before making a purchase.

"You don't see them putting the price on posters," Wootan says about fast-food restaurants. "They put the price on the menu board because that's what people look at."

Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, has a similar view of restaurants' motives. "I think the real reason is that they don't want people to have the sticker-shock they'll experience when they see the numbers," he says.

Hunt, however, says restaurants aren't worried about customers seeing nutrition facts. He believes that any change in behavior would be short-lived.

"It's like dieting," he says. Customers will watch their calories for a few days, and then they'll go back to their less-nutritious favorites, he says.

But if the pattern in the study proves true across America, customers may gravitate toward grilled chicken instead of double-decker burgers when they catch a glimpse of calorie counts.

"The fast-food industry's going to have to deal with people's astonishment," Bassett says. "We're hopeful that the food will, in fact, become food that people can eat."

Making the Decision

Customers will always hold the purchasing power, even if calorie information is prominently displayed. "People can choose to drive Hummers despite their low-fuel efficiency, and they can choose to eat high-calorie foods," Katz says. "But in each case, it's better for both the individual and for society that it be an informed choice."

However, Madelyn Fernstrom, director of the UPMC Weight Management Center in Pittsburgh, says laws mandating calorie displays are neither practical nor helpful. A KFC customer craving a chicken pot pie might still place the order after seeing that it packs 770 calories.

"I think a better solution is for every restaurant — fast foods and regular — to have a section of the menu with smart calorie buys … for consumers who want to save calories," she says.

For those who want to stay healthy when calorie information isn't available, Katz has a few tips: Stick with grilled, baked or broiled foods; use sauces, spreads and dressings sparingly; and add extra veggies.

And an even simpler option? "No matter where you are, order a kids' meal," Fernstrom says. "It's always around 500 calories if you order a diet soda or bottled water."

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