Diners Ignoring Calorie Counts At Fast Food Restaurants

Brian Elbel, PhD MPH Associate professor, Department of Population Health NYU Langone Medical Center and at NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service

Dr. Brian Elbel

MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Brian Elbel, PhD MPH
Associate professor, Department of Population Health
NYU Langone Medical Center and at
NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service 

Medical Research: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

Dr. Elbel: Since New York City implemented in 2008 its mandatory calorie counts in all chain restaurants, including in fast-food eateries, public health officials and the general public have wondered what impact it’s having on curbing the obesity epidemic gripping the nation and the city.

An estimated third of adult Americans are obese (with a body mass index of 30 or more), and that number is expected to rise to 42 percent by 2030, among the highest of any country in the developed world.

Our study looks at the effects of so-called calorie counts some six years out from when the law took effect. Between 2013 and 2014, a team of NYU Langone researchers analyzed the receipts of some 7,699 diners at fast-food restaurants in NYC and in nearby NJ cities to see if the menu labels reduced the overall number of calories that consumers of fast food order and presumably eat. Our research team compared calories consumed at fast-food eateries with and without calorie labels.

Researchers found that the average number of calories bought by patrons at each sitting between 2013 and 2014 was statistically the same as those in a similar survey we conducted in 1,068 fast-food diners in 2008, when New York City initially imposed menu labeling. Diners were surveyed at major fast-food chains: McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, and Wendy’s.

Calorie counts in the 2013-2014 analysis averaged between 804 and 839 per meal at menu-labeled restaurants, and between 802 and 857 per meal at non-labeled eateries; whereas, they averaged 783 per meal for labeled restaurants and 756 per meal for non-labeled restaurants shortly after the policy was introduced.

For the surveys, diners entering the fast-food restaurant were asked to return their itemized receipt to research assistants and answer some follow-up questions in person in exchange for two dollars.

Our study suggests that menu labeling, in particular at fast-food restaurants, will not on its own lead to any lasting reductions in calories consumed.

fast food meal CDC imageMedical Research: What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?

Dr. Elbel: Our report offers policy-makers early evidence of the possible impact of menu labeling as the federal government prepares to introduce the policy nationwide in December 2016 as part of its Affordable Care Act.

Although, there is still cause for optimism in our findings, because the current and previous studies show at least some awareness of the bloated calorie counts in most fast food. People are at least reading the information, some are even using it. Among the study results from 2008, some 51 percent of survey respondents reported noticing the calorie counts, and 12 percent claimed that it influenced them to choose a lower-calorie item, even if it did not reduce overall caloric intake.

However, the number of people paying attention to the calorie counts diminishes over time. At the start of the 2013 study, 45 percent of survey respondents said they noticed the calorie counts, a decrease from 2008 levels. As the study continued, this number dropped six months later to 41 percent and dropped again in 2014, to 37 percent, in the last set of surveys.

Medical Research: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Dr. Elbel: Continued and closer monitoring of the impact of menu labeling should also boost success rates by showing more clearly where, for whom, and what kind of labeling shows the most promise. Labels may yet work at non-fast-food, family-style restaurant chains, or for specific groups of people with a greater need than most to consume fewer calories and eat more healthily. We will have to wait and see, while continuing to monitor and analyze the policy’s impact.

Citation:

Big Apple Menu Calorie Counts Don’t Add Up To Leaner Diets At Fast-Food Restaurants-
Study suggests that calorie labeling alone is not enough to curb obesity

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Brian Elbel, PhD MPH (2015). Diners Ignoring Calorie Counts At Fast Food Restaurants 

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