Not So Fast, Food: Calorie Counts Sway Diners

Posting calorie counts may lead consumers to healthier choices when eating out.

ByABC News
June 12, 2008, 1:30 PM

June 12, 2008— -- 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.

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.

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.