Healthy and Sane

Restaurant nutritional info–does it matter?

February 4th, 2011 · 29 Comments · Uncategorized

You may remember I just traveled to NY for business. It’s been nearly four years since I lived there. I miss some of that energy but mostly I miss the food (and my sister). Not food in general, we have plenty of amazing restaurants in Boston… but local spots I used to frequent and the plethora of salad bars and delis on every corner.

The other thing I love about those NY delis and restaurants are the nutritional summaries for every item in plain sight (they didn’t have that when I lived there but I’m really impressed every time I visit now). I think it goes without saying that someone that’s health conscious and is in active weight-loss mode is excited about this NY law (I really really really can’t wait for Boston restaurants to follow suit… I even wrote about standing up for public nutritional info back in 2009). What I always wondered about, though, is how much an average consumer is really influenced by these figures that can’t be avoided (or can they?). Well, this past Tuesday I saw one example of it.

My co-workers and I were at the Penn station with 2 hours to spare before our train, so we decided to hit up TGI Fridays for a few drinks (it’s right in the train station). Eventually people started getting hungry and my boss asked for the menu to get an appetizer to snack on and maybe a real meal for the train (I already pre-purchased my salad at Pret). He was faced with a menu that had calorie counts right then and there!


[Picture source]

My boss is not particularly health conscious (he’s definitely sporting a belly) and I’m going to go ahead and say that he’s not particularly knowledgeable about nutrition (just from random little comments I heard him say) but these numbers startled him! He knew that 1,800 calories for a salad was an overkill (“Isn’t that like a total day’s worth of calories?” he said. Yes it is!) and so despite being hungry he put the menu down and decided to get a salad elsewhere (I joked that he just went to a place that didn’t list nutritionals but still).

I honestly was surprised by this behavior. I think a lot of people have absolutely no concept of what calories are or how many one should eat so these numbers of course are just numbers… since there is no framework as to how it compares to your total daily recommended allowance. I also read somewhere that certain people (mostly guys and those struggling financially) may actually order things of higher caloric value because of perception that you get more for your dollar. Obviously, not exactly the point of this law but hey, at least it makes for a more educated decision, whatever way it goes.

I should note that the TGI Friday’s menu on their website does not clearly display caloric content (even though they clearly have it!) because the numbers remain shocking and for most of people that actually know what they mean, can be a deterrent… so they hide it (I don’t mean to pick on this chain in particular but it’s a fine example of “standard” chain restaurants). Ignorance is not always bliss. Do you think that restaurant nutritional info right on the menu would make a difference in what your order (or whether you order at all!)?

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29 Comments so far ↓

  • #1 - Stephanie @ The Cookie Battle

    I absolutely think nutritionals on the menu would influence my decision…if I see an 1800 calorie SALAD I’m not going to order it, or I will say no cheese, croutons, and dressing on the side, etc.

    I firmly believe nutritional information should be disclosed EVERYWHERE.

  • #2 - Carrie @ TV and Dinners

    This DEFINITELY affects how I order. In the past year, Panera has started putting calorie information on their order boards and baked goods displays. I honestly haven’t ordered a baked good since. (Unless I got it for free…then I partook. Ha.)

    I wish all menus had this.

  • #3 - Michelle

    It would definitely affect how I order. I think a lot of people have a “screw it” mentality once they are sitting in a restaurant and will just order something on the menu versus have calorie counts on online menus which might deter you from going there in the first place!

  • #4 - Kate

    It absolutely makes a difference to me. If I see two muffins, one with 390 calories and one with 450 and they both look about equally tasty, I’ll definitely go for the lower calorie one–why not?

  • #5 - Julie (A Case of the Runs)

    Dang, that’s a lot of calories for a salad — !

    Nutritionals do make a difference to me, but I usually can estimate without the information given to me, anyway. I can tell when my food has butter in it and just eat less of it.

  • #6 - Lindsey

    It definitely makes a difference. I try to find foods that sound relatively guilt-free when I eat out, but this would help immensely. I may still decide to indulge in a high calorie treat–but at least I’d KNOW how much exercise it would take to cancel it out!

  • #7 - Emily @ A Cambridge Story

    I would definitely be influenced by these numbers. Sometimes it is nice to just eat nachos without worrying about the nutritional content but I would never order a salad with 1800 calories. It’s important to realize what is contributing this high calorie content, too. Toppings like bacon, cheese and, of course, dressing can make salads really junky, and I tend to lean toward turkey sandwiches instead.

  • #8 - MelissaNibbles

    I would definitely be affected. I wish they listed it in MA.

  • #9 - Jess

    i try to make healthy choices when i’m at restaurants or look up the nutritional information before i go out. sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. but having the info clearly printed next to it would help. as would the actual breakdown of each ingredient. i find when i can remove items and or substitute items, an “unhealthy” choice can become a healthy one.

  • #10 - Lauren at KeepItSweet

    As someone who is trying to watch their weight, I find the calorie counts extrememely helpful. I only wish that they’d provide more information (like fat/saturated fat content, etc.). I also think it would be helpful for some people if there was more context around the number. It would be great if this wasn’t just on chains, but I can understand why this is harder for small businesses to incorporate into their menus.

  • #11 - Katie @ The Aspiring RD

    Yes this definitely matters – though sometimes not always in the way we would like! As you mentioned, there has been research done that actually says that people will order the food with a higher caloric content to get the larger ‘bang for the buck’ wish when you consider fast food nutritional information can be the difference between a bad double cheeseburger and a TERRIBLE Big Mac. I constantly see people surprised by the calorie counts on menus and changing their behavior because of it – I applaud your boss for at least starting to think about what the numbers mean. But you hit the nail on the head – the problem is the knowledge gap – most people don’t understand what 1,800 calories for a salad means when they don’t know how many calories they should be consuming in a day.

  • #12 - inna

    i think it makes a ginormous difference. first of all – i am SO much more likely to get lunch from a place where i know the nutritional info.
    in fact, the only time i don’t know how many calories i “spent” for lunch is when i bring my own ( and then i can make a pretty accurate guesstimate)!

  • #13 - Samantha Angela @ Bikini Birthday

    Oh yeah, it would make a huge difference! I already go online to look for menu items in advance of going out for dinner to try to analyze what my dining choices will be solely based on the entree description.
    It would be so much easier if the calorie counts were there in plain sight.
    …I imagine that could even deter me from eating at a restaurant at all.

  • #14 - Cat @ YoungHungryFoolish

    I eat at Panera Bread quite a bit (blogging from there right now, actually!) because I like having the calorie counts on the menu. I’ve also noticed that their side baguettes are smaller since they’ve started posting the stats, which I appreciate.

  • #15 - Val @ Balancing Val

    Going to school in NYC I get to see all the calorie counts on everything too!

    Truth is, I USED to really care about that number because those numbers would decide what I am eating whether I wanted it or not.

    These days I eat without concern for the calories. If its what my body truly wants and if I stop when I am satisfied then there are no problems.


    • #16 - Elina

      I think stopping when you’re satisfied is really key. With that said, I think when your body wants a salad, it doesn’t want an 1,800 calorie salad. You may stop half way (I’m sure it’s giant) but it’s still too much food with hidden calories.

  • #17 - Lizzy

    Yes! It would make a huge difference. I salad with 1800 calories is INSANE! This is why I try to cook for myself for the most part – but I’ve never counted calories and truthfully, I might be too scared for what I’d find out! Good for you for getting a healthy salad before boarding!! i had my latest weigh in and the scale didn’t budge. Ughhhh!!!

    • #18 - Elina

      Agreed, no one “needs” an 1800 calorie salad. You’re doing everything right so just hold tight. I’m sure next week will be better :)

  • #19 - Sarah @ Semi-Sweet

    yes! but I’m not “average” in that I’m a long-time weightloss maintainer/calorie counter/health freak/fitness junkie. but I think what happened w/your boss is a start, right? educating the more average person and waking them up to say “hey!? is this worth it??” I’m not opposed to eating high-cal food, but that’d be pizza/baked goods/Thanksgiving dinner – not a salad. I think the info. can get people budgeting their calories more wisely.

  • #20 - Shannon

    that is one crazy salad, and i’m impressed your boss decided to eat elsewhere! the question is… did he get a salad from somewhere else with calorie counts??

    knowledge is power. or at least the first step 😉

    • #21 - Elina

      He actually ended up getting a sandwich on the train (we ran out of time). I think it had calories on the package but I’m sure he ordered it without finding out the info first. I was impressed with him too! :)

  • #22 - One Healthy Apple

    I think I would be influenced by calories if I was out at a restaurant for sure. We don’t have calorie counts in San Francisco, but they are fairly easily to request and available on websites.

    If it was a nice dinner though, I would not want to see it- special occasions are just that and sometimes ignorance is bliss. This is of course after I spend most of my life carefully watching what I eat, so I wouldn’t want it in a fine dining situation.

    • #23 - Elina

      I actually agree on that. Although honestly, I think the best thing would be having the information at the back of the menu or something like that so that you can still access it if you really want to but also have the option of blissful enjoyment. :)

  • #24 - Diana @ frontyardfoodie

    Whoa, they put them right there?! That could seriously hinder business. Mostly because it’s easy to just be like ‘well this isn’t very healthy’ but not actually realize how bad it is.

    My first job was working at Ruby Tuesdays and we had a book that had all the calories for every dish listed in it and it was appalling! One burger was 2100 without the fries!

  • #25 - Kerstin

    1800 calories for a salad?!? Wow, that’s crazy. I think nutritional info should be online or in a special menu, so those that want to see it can!

  • #26 - Bridget

    Personally I would like to see nutritionals for all restaurants! I think that some of the really nice restaurants would really hate it as they are often special occasion places but I still think it would help. 1800 for a salad is ridiculous!! Although Iwish they’d break it down with dressing info, because I feel like sometimes if u just get the dressing on the side and limit it, it saves a ton of calories.

  • #27 - Cara

    I’m surprised at your boss’s reaction too! I feel like for the majority of people, it doesn’t really matter – and like you said, these people have no clue how many calories they should be eating in total anyway. I like having nutritional info available but I’m not shocked at the high counts either! However, those are typically menu items I know not to order anyway 😉

  • #28 - Rachael

    Whenever I go back to NY to visit my parents, I’m a bit disturbed by the calorie counts at restaurants. This is pretty personal, though – I recovered from an eating disorder, and I certainly see the merits for much of the population. Most folks just don’t have a solid sense of nutrition, and I feel like we’re starting to move, as a nation, towards making that information available (even if we do get called socialist for doing so :). Go figure)

  • #29 - Meghan@travelwinedine

    I actually prefer not to see the nutritionals, personally. I have gotten to a point where I generally make good choices, and if I want a splurge, I don’t want to be doubly reminded of it! But I can completely see it being helpful for people who struggle with knowing what to eat or who have special dietary concerns.