Using the nutrition information on restaurant menus

The restaurant industry, especially the pizza industry, is against the menu labeling law. But health professionals and consumers want it.

You’re looking up at the McDonald’s menu and see the menu item, the price, and what’s that…? It’s the calorie content. The nutrition facts use to be buried in a brochure near the exit, but now – whether we like it or not – the calories are posted on the menus of some fast food and restaurant chains. McDonalds and Starbucks have been voluntarily posting the numbers for a handful of years. Other chains are in wait-and-see mode, holding off until May 2018 to find out what the federal menu labeling requirements are.

What’s the purpose of posting calories on restaurant menus and how are we meant to use this information? Let’s take a look.

How to use it

A new client of mine recently put it this way: “I forced myself to order a salad at TGI Friday’s in an effort to be healthy. I didn’t even like it, but I ate it because I thought I should. Later I found out it contained 1360 calories and most of my Weight Watcher points for that entire day!” She touched on one of the reasons that the restaurant industry is not thrilled about the menu labeling requirement: consumers could get turned off by higher-than-expected calorie surprises like this.

So how can you effectively use the calorie information you see – or will see – on menus? Try not to make rules about what you will and won’t order based on calories. In other words, avoid plans like “I’m only going to order foods under X number of calories”. Plans like that will likely backfire when the item you want is higher than X and you leave feeling unsatisfied.

If the item you want is a shocking number of calories higher than it’s homemade counterpart, keep perusing the menu and see if there is anything else that might sound just as good. Or consider modifying the item in ways that won’t be missed – like if you could care less about mayo, ask the person taking your order to hold the mayo. These tips are most relevant to those who are frequently eating out.

Compare the calorie amount to the predicted satisfaction. My client was obviously not satisfied by the salad and did not think the calorie amount was “worth it”. For that calorie amount, she would have preferred to order what she really wanted that would have left her feeling satisfied.

Looking at calories in a matter-of-fact way, with the calorie information being used to simply inform our decision without judgement can be a tough place to get to, but it something to strive for.

The menu calorie content requirement is what gets talked about most, but where the real nutritional benefit might be found is in the part of this law that requires additional nutrition information to be available. The menu will merely share calories, but for those interested more than calories (and I would argue that this is more important than the calories), the fiber, sodium, saturated fat, sugar, and other macros and micros will be readily available.