Dec. 9, 2014 -- Most people approve of the new FDA ruling that requires chain restaurants and vending machine operators to list calories on their menu items, according to a new WebMD survey. And among those who've seen calories posted on menus, nearly half say the information is already influencing their food choices when they eat out.
The nationwide survey included more than 1,100 men and women who responded from desktop computers or mobile phones. Among them, it was almost evenly divided between those who had seen calories on menus (52%) and those who had not (48%).
The majority of respondents who'd seen the calorie counts -- 81% -- say they approve of the rules. The survey also found:
- Nearly three-quarters (74%) say the counts are beneficial.
- More than half say the calorie counts are higher than they expected.
The poll findings are not a surprise, says Hansa Bhargava, MD, WebMD medical editor. "Giving people information is powerful," she says. "Most consumers in our survey not only like the idea of seeing calories on their menu, but actually change their behavior due to it, often picking lower-calorie options."
About one-third of calories are eaten away from home, according to the FDA. The agency's ruling aims to give people clear information about what they're really eating and drinking.
The rules also include labeling requirements for restaurant-style food in grocery stores, big-box stores, coffee shops, ice cream stores, movie theaters, and amusement parks.
WebMD survey participants reported eating out an average of twice weekly. Most popular for frequent visits are quick, fast food outlets.
Many say they've seen calories listed in the past few months, as some restaurants had already posted them. Of those people who'd seen them:
- 75% say they saw them in fast-food outlets such as McDonald’s.
- 53% saw them in fast-casual restaurants such as Panera Bread.
- 66% saw them on menus at casual dining spots such as Applebee’s or the Olive Garden.
- 23% say they saw calorie counts listed at fine dining establishments.
Fifty-six percent say the count totals were higher than they expected.
Effect of the Calorie Information
Although researchers have questioned how helpful the calorie information may be, many readers who've seen them say the counts are already having an impact on their choices.
- 59% made a change to their order.
- Among them, 28% changed their drink order to a lower-calorie option.
- 79% changed their food order to a lower-calorie option.
- 37% changed their side dish order to a lower-calorie option.
- 41% say they made no changes to their order.
When a beverage reached 400 calories or more, 56% changed the order to a less hefty option. And when the entrée reached 1,000 calories, 62% changed to a lower-calorie option. Sixty percent switched their side dish order when it was 1,000 calories or more.
"Getting calorie counts can make a difference -- and may impact excess weight gain as well," Bhargava says.
Those who hadn't seen calorie counts posted on menus still seemed to like the idea, with 55% saying they believe it would be beneficial to them, and 46% saying they approved of the rules for chain restaurants.
Among those who haven’t seen calorie counts:
- 75% say they'd change their drink order if it was over 400 calories.
- 66% say they would order a different entrée if theirs was over 1,000 calories.
- 78% say they'd order a different side dish if it reached 1,000 calories.
However, 66% of those who say they haven’t seen calorie counts on menus say they're not currently watching or keeping track of the calories they eat.
Like the poll respondents, people on Facebook have differing opinions. “If people are so concerned, they should cook at home,” says Facebook user Kelly Nichols.
Another Facebook user thinks it's important to be realistic. Says Holly Chandler: "I think it's fine to list it but if they're going for the double cheeseburger don't expect the calorie count listing to sway someone to a grilled chicken instead."
Arian Grace Mansouri was more upbeat, posting: "Yes, I love having calories right there, it definitely helps me!"