Finally! Chain Restaurants Are Creating Lower Calorie Meals

Finally! Chain Restaurants Are Creating Lower Calorie Meals

Piece of mind: Your pizza order just got a little less sinful.

Photo by Seoulful Adventures/Flickr

As it becomes increasingly likely that the FDA will require restaurants to post the calorie content of their food, some chains seem to be taking preemptive steps to cut back: The number of calories in newly introduced menu items at large U.S. chain restaurants is on the decline, according to a new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine

Using data from MenuStat, the Johns Hopkins University researchers analyzed the calorie content of 19,417 menu items for 66 of the 100 largest U.S. restaurant chains — including Burger King, McDonald’s, Subway, and Wendy’s — in 2012 and 2013. Although the average number of calories in restaurant foods didn’t change overall, the number of calories in new menu items did. Specifically, foods introduced in 2013 contained 56 fewer calories, on average, than new menu items for 2012. 

The most significant reductions occurred in main-course offerings, such as burgers, pizza, sandwiches, and salads, with an average drop of 67 calories per item. (The biggest changes were in sandwiches and salads.) Other categories with significant improvements: children’s menu items (46-calorie decrease) and beverages (26-calorie decrease).

“How is it happening? We don’t know if it’s portion size or if it’s actually reformulating nutrients, like lower fat or lower carbs,” said study author and public-health expert Sara Bleich. “The big takeaway is that chain restaurants are making offerings healthier.” 

However, the decline in entrees wasn’t universal: Among restaurants focused on burgers — places like Five Guys, McDonald’s, and Jack in the Box — new burgers actually tended to show an increase, on average, in calorie content. (Calorie counts for individual restaurants weren’t revealed in the study, though.)

“Restaurants are much more likely to mess with the calories in things that are not signature to their brand,” Bleich told Yahoo Health. One explanation: A customer who heads to a burger joint for a burger expects big-time flavor, and a disappointing experience could alienate the consumer if the menu item is one of the restaurant’s core offerings, she said. 

Related: How Family Meals May Fight Obesity

Generally speaking, the calorie count of restaurant food is still high. Even so, Bleich believes restaurants are headed in the right direction and that the changes being made may be significant enough to impact public health. “If you look at the rise in childhood obesity over about a 10-year period, how many additional calories a day contributed to that? Only about 165 calories in children,” she said. “About 1 in 3 kids go to a fast-food restaurant every day. So if you remove 60 calories out of their purchase, that could go a long way in reducing the number of excess calories that kids are consuming. And the same is true for adults.” 

Bleich anticipates that calorie cutting will be even more drastic in coming years, once the FDA begins requiring calorie content to be posted. The present changes, she said, are likely in anticipation of “calorie shock” that may happen once nutritional stats are made widely available. “We saw this back in 2006 when New York passed a law about menu labeling,” she told Yahoo Health. “Starbucks, for example, had drinks with over 800 calories. There was this huge consumer backlash — and as a result, things started to get reformulated.” 

Most encouraging, she said, is that these calorie reductions are happening behind the scenes, leaving consumers unaware that the chicken sandwich they just ordered may be a healthier choice. Why is this good news? Because average diners — excluding the health nuts who would notice an 800-calorie drink — don’t tend to pay attention to calorie counts even when they are posted. 

Related: Freaky Facts About the American Diet

“There have been about a dozen studies in places where menu labeling has been implemented, like New York or Seattle,” Bleich said. “Generally, there is either no effect or small effects [on consumer behavior].” That may be because only about 30 percent of consumers even notice the postings, but also because “Americans have very poor calorie literacy,” she said. In other words, most of us don’t automatically translate calories to the number of miles we’d have to run to burn them off or even know how many we should allot per meal.  

That said, this study sheds light on an easy way to watch what you eat, even if nutritional information isn’t made widely available (or you don’t care to read the numbers). If you’re dining at a restaurant with a specific focus — say, pizza or burgers — “looking to things that aren’t signature to the brand may help you make a lower-calorie choice,” said Bleich. And if you do choose a signature dish, aim to eat only half of the meal. 


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