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Has your favorite restaurant joined the war against obesity?

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
restaurant dining, calories, obesity, healthy food

If your favorite eatery is featuring lower calorie entrees, it is probably experiencing an increase in business. If not, it is likely to be noting more empty tables during peak business hours. These findings were released by a new report from the Hudson Institute on February 7 at the request of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation is the nation's largest philanthropy devoted solely to the public's health; it is focused on the most pressing health and health care problems threatening our society.

The Hudson Institute notes that previous studies on how posting calorie information affects consumer behavior have proved mixed findings. Some have found that providing calorie information has steered consumers toward healthier options; however, others have found no noticeable shift. The researchers analyzed 21 fast-food and sit-down restaurant chains between 2006 and 2011. Lower-calorie servings were defined as: sandwiches and entrees containing 500 or fewer calories; beverages with 50 or fewer calories per eight ounces; and side dishes, appetizers and desserts with 150 or fewer calories.

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The investigators found that lower-calorie food and beverages spurred the chains’ growth. It found that restaurants that increased lower-calorie servings experienced an average 5.5% increase in same-store sales. Restaurants that offered less lower-calorie servings experienced a 5.5% decrease in sales. The study found that the number of lower-calorie food and beverage servings sold increased 2.5% to 18.7 billion; in contrast, the number of higher-calorie servings sold fell 4.2% to 31.2 billion. The researchers examined restaurant servings and traffic from market-research firm NPD Group Inc. and publicly available sales data from the restaurant chains.

Federal regulations mandate that operators of restaurants with 20 or more outlets must post calorie counts are expected to take effect early next year. Some chains, including McDonald’s and Panera Bread Co. currently post calorie information on menu boards nationwide. After Panera posted calorie counts on its menu boards in 2010, the company noticed that 20% of customers began ordering lower-calorie items. In addition, several chains have created sections on their menus featuring smaller portions and low-calorie offerings; these chains include Fit Fare at Denny’s restaurants and Au Bon Portions at Au Bon Pain chain. Chili's Grill & Bar reported that sales of items containing less than 675 calories increased after it featured two new items on that Lighter Choices lineup on menu inserts last December.

Take home message:
This study points out that Americans are conscious of the obesity epidemic and if given the choice will select lower calorie options. In general, however, one has less control over the caloric content or the healthiness of restaurant food unless they patronize a restaurant that places a strong emphasis on these factors. A significant factor in food choice is its taste. Less tasty food is often shunned. For example, when Campbell’s Soup dropped the sodium content of some of its product, sales dropped. The key is to either patronize a restaurant that features tasty, healthy, low calorie meals. Alternatively, prepare these types of meals at home at lower cost and with more control of the ingredients.

Hudson Institute
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation