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Menu Labeling Leads to Healthier Food at Restaurants

Meal options in Seattle sit-down and fast food restaurants improved—a little—after nutritional and calorie information was added to the menus.

If you knew how many calories were in a McDonald’s double quarter pounder with cheese (750 calories), would you order a salad instead?

As the obesity epidemic spreads, interest has grown in menu labeling. This type of regulation requires restaurants to post calorie and nutritional information, and is designed to prod consumers toward better eating. It’s unclear, though, what effect this has on consumer choices.

A new study, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, found that menu labeling might work by encouraging chain restaurants to offer healthier food. Researchers looked at the impact of menu labeling regulations in King County, Washington, six and 18 months after the new law went into effect.

During that time, there was some improvement in the menu options. On average, meals decreased by about 41 calories, along with a drop in the saturated fat and sodium content. Healthier alternatives appeared on the menus, but mainly at sit-down restaurants.

However, most of the meals offered at both sit-down and fast food restaurants exceeded the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutritional guidelines for calories, saturated fat, and sodium.

Given that obesity in America costs billions of dollars a year, there’s a lot to be gained by altering the eating habits of people away from home. Some government regulations, like the trans fat ban in New York City, have resulted in clear improvements to the health of the public.

The results in this case are somewhat less impressive, but cutting even 41 calories a day from your diet can have important long-term benefits. 

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