Fast-Food Diners Underestimate Calories on Unlabeled Menus

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Fast-Food Diners Underestimate Calories on Unlabeled Menus
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We are in the middle of what some refer to an obesity epidemic, so it is unfortunate to find research that shows that consumers are not as informed about what they are taking into their bodies as they should be. Yet, there is a glimmer of hope that information may be key at reversing bad nutritional decision-making.

A new study published by a journal of the British Medical Association revealed that consumers are greatly underestimating the calories in their meals at fast food chains, particularly young people. Overall, teenaged diners thought their meals contained one-third fewer calories than the meals actually contained.

Researchers surveyed customers at McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Wendy’s, KFC, and Dunkin’ Donuts. The establishments were located in U.S. cities in the New England region, where regulations did not require nutritional information to be published on menu items. Participants who were surveyed included 1,877 adults, parents of 330 school-age children, and 1,178 adolescents.

They found that all three groups underestimated their caloric intake from the fast-food meals. Adult meals had an average of 836 calories, which they underestimated by about 20 percent. The parents of the young children also underestimated their kids’ meals as much as 23 percent. The teens had the largest gap, with meals containing an average of 756 calories, estimated an average of 259 calories less, for an underestimation of 34 percent.

The researchers also noted that one-quarter of all participants estimated their meals to be at least 500 calories less than reality.

The results differed based on food chain, as well. Subway customers underestimated their calories by a larger amount than customers of the other restaurants. The research team suggested that the reason for this could be Subway’s advertising and branding that implies the healthiness of their products.

King County, WA, chain restaurants have been required to label menus with caloric information since legislation in 2009. Another new study has highlighted the effectiveness of this law on reducing calorie intake among consumers.

Researchers sought to evaluate the impact of menu-labeling regulations 18 months after implementation, the first results showing how consumer behavior is effected over a year after the rules went into effect.

Researchers analyzed the purchases of 7,325 fast-food-chain customers in King County, measuring the average number of calories purchased per person. They found no significant changes in purchase patterns after six months of menu-labeling, but they did observe a decrease in the number of calories per purchase after 18 months. On average, customers were purchasing meals with 154.3 less calories than they had before the laws went into effect.

It was discovered that women were more likely than men to be influenced to make better caloric choices after nutritional labels were added to menus. This was especially true in chain coffee establishments.

In a press release about both studies, Jason Block, MD, of Harvard, lead researcher in the first study, said, “These findings tell us that many people who eat at fast-food restaurants may not be making informed choices because they don’t know how many calories they’re consuming. Having the information is an important first step for anyone wanting to make changes.”

The U.S Food and Drug Administration is expected to publish final regulations requiring all chain restaurants with at least 20 locations to post calorie information on menus.


Block J, et al. Consumers’ estimation of calorie content at fast food restaurants: cross sectional observational study. BMJ 2013. Published online 23 May 2013. doi: 10.1136/bmj.f2907.

Clayton C. Consumers Underestimate calories in fast-food meals; teens do so by as much as 34 percent. Press Release by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Healthy Eating Research Program. Published online May 23, 2013.

Krieger J, et al. Menu labeling regulations and calories purchased at chain restaurants. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 2013; 44(6): 595-604.



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