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Yes, People Do Eat Healthier When Menus Show Calorie Counts

- Getty: Chris Hondros / Staff
Getty: Chris Hondros / Staff

Results from a new survey suggest that listing calorie counts pushes both women and men to order healthier items.

After many delays and debates following 2010's Affordable Care Act, restaurants, fast-casual chains and supermarkets across the nation were required to update menus to reflect calorie counts this May. And a new survey shows that consumers have taken note, with more than 75 percent of consumers indicating that seeing calories really does influence their orders.

The survey comes from the team at Signs.com, a manufacturer of custom signage, and included responses from 600 diners on their ordering preferences. Half of the group received menus that included detailed nutritional information and calorie counts while another group received menus lacking this information—both groups were asked how nutritional information later played into the meal they ordered.

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Interestingly, a significant portion of both men and women indicated that they actively seek out calorie counts on menus: 80 percent of women and 71 percent of men who participated in the survey said they look at nutritional information when it's available to them.

But the main reason that lawmakers have asked for calorie counts to be publicized—and the basis of the great debate—is whether consumers actually use the information to make healthier choices.

It turned out that, of those surveyed, an average of 50 percent said that they changed their order to something with lower calories—but there was a marked gender disparity: 54 percent of women changed their orders, whereas only 46 percent of men did. This may be less surprising considering that men are more likely to be overweight or obese in the first place (almost 3 out of every 4 men in the US).

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While it's clear that listing calories affects how Americans eat out, there's more to menus that could also influence our health.

The same survey showed that only 6 percent of respondents knew what designations like "grass-fed" actually entailed, but almost every person a majority of those surveyed said sustainability and ethical manufacturing was a priority. Only sixteen percent could really identify what "free-range" products were, yet items with these claims can often cost twice as much—or more, according to this NPR report.

Women surveyed said they'd be willing to pay upwards of $2.30 more for "line-caught" tuna tartare due to that specific designation.

The bottom line: Menus play a huge role in how we perceive what's healthy and what's not when we're outside of our kitchens, but new calorie counts on menus seem to be encouraging consumers to think twice about what they're eating. More data and research is needed to prove if America's obesity epidemic will be affected by new initiatives like this one, but this survey suggests that we're off to a good start.

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