NUTRITION
October 23, 2014

Restaurants Cut Calories; Diners Win

Restaurant chains have been introducing lower-calorie items. This could help diners keep weight off.

Eating out is getting a little easier on the waistline as restaurants are cutting calories on some of their menu items. No, an extra-large fries with cheese is not on the list of calorie-lowered foods.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health analyzed almost 20,000 menu items from 66 of the 100 largest restaurant chains in the US in 2012 and 2013, including Chipotle, Wendy’s, and Applebee’s.

The study found that menu items introduced in 2013 had 12 percent fewer calories than menu items in 2012. The greatest decrease was seen in new items on children’s menus with a 20 percent drop in calories.

Choosing restaurant items that contain 60 fewer calories would result in a savings of over 15,000 calories or the equivalent of about four pounds per year.

Newly-introduced food and beverage items at restaurants contained 60 fewer calories on average than traditional menu choices. While 60 calories might not seem like a lot, those calories can add up to progress in the fight against obesity, especially considering the fact that a third of children and adults eat at a fast food restaurant daily.

“If the average number of calories consumed at each visit was reduced by approximately 60 calories — the average decline we observed in newly introduced menus in our study — the impact on obesity could be significant,” Sara N. Bleich, lead author of the study said In a statement.

According to the National Restaurant Association, Americans eat out an average of four to five times a week. Restaurant meals contain about 200 more calories than meals eaten at home. A person who eats out five times a week would consume 52,000 more calories a year compared to eating at home. Choosing restaurant items that contain 60 fewer calories would result in a savings of over 15,000 calories, the equivalent of about four pounds per year.

The study authors noted that the new lower-calorie menu items were usually found in the categories of main courses, children’s menus, and beverages. However, most restaurants weren’t toying with their signature dishes such as high-calorie hamburgers or pizzas. The new, lower-calorie items tended to be items like sandwiches and salads.

“You can't prohibit people from eating fast food, but offering consumers lower calorie options at chain restaurants may help reduce caloric intake without asking the individual to change their behavior — a very difficult thing to do,” Bleich, an associate professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Bloomberg School, said.

Federal menu-labeling provisions outlined in the 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA) are not yet in effect, so this voluntary action to offer lower calorie menu options may indicate a trend toward increasing the transparency of nutritional information, which could have a significant impact on obesity and the public's health, Bleich explained.

It’s likely that restaurant chains are reducing menu calories in anticipation of the calorie shock consumers will experience when the federal requirement that calories be posted alongside prices on menus becomes effective.

With this good news about restaurant items, comes a word of caution: Restaurant meals are still quite high in calories as well as sodium and fat, particularly compared to home-cooked meals. Shaving off 60 calories by no means turns a restaurant meal into a healthy meal, but it helps.

The study was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

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