Traffic light symbol used to help count calories in restaurants

Counting Calories in Restaurants

This post was originally written during my 2 1/2 year tenure as a blogger for Health Goes Strong. The site was deactivated on July 1, 2013, but you can read the post here.

CHANGES IN MENU LABELS SHOULD MAKE IT EASIER TO COUNT CALORIES IN RESTAURANTS

When you see a red light you know it means “stop.” With that in mind, a study was designed to test whether using a traffic symbol on menus would help people select lower calorie options over just providing their caloric values.

It produced some surprising findings.

There’s no denying that we eat more when eating out. In an effort to slow us down (make that an “amber light”), the Affordable Care Act requires posting calories in restaurants. If you’re into counting calories, this might help.

But if you’re one of the millions of Americans who don’t have a clue how many calories you need each day, those extra numbers next to the price on menu labels won’t mean much.

Traffic Lights and Calories on Restaurant Menus

The study was done by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity in February 2013. To conduct the experiment a restaurant was divided into three sections, all with the same food and menu descriptions. Different information about the caloric content of the items was on the menus in two of the sections. One section had no caloric information and served as the control group. One section had calorie-only information for each item on the menu. The third section had menus with the calorie information and a traffic light symbol. The Green Light indicated 400 calories or less, the Yellow Light meant 401-800 calories, and the Red Light items had more than 800 calories.

Over a two week period, diners were seated at random in one of the three sections during lunch service. They could choose from the 51 options on the menu or the daily special, and had no idea they were participating in a study.

At the end of the meal they were asked to complete a survey that included questions about their demographic characteristics, health consciousness, reason for dining out and frequency, method of item selection (taste, price, healthfulness, etc.) and menu label preference when given the choice between calorie-only or calorie+traffic light. They also completed a checklist indicating everything they ordered. At this point they were informed they were part of a research project.

The Big Surprise

The biggest surprise for me when I read the results had to do with the way people with different levels of “health consciousness” were influenced by the calorie information provided. Here’s what the researchers found:

  • calorie-only labels had the greatest impact on the least health conscious
  • calorie+traffic light menus had greatest impact on the most health conscious
  • calorie-only labels had their greatest impact on the selection of the main entrée
  • calorie-only and calorie+traffic light menus resulted in more extra calories (sides, desserts, drinks) being ordered than by those with no information on their menus
  • calorie+traffic light menus resulted in total calorie reduction of 69 calories

Summary of Key Findings:

At low levels of health consciousness, the calorie-only label led to larger calorie reductions; however, as health consciousness increased, the calorie+traffic light was more effective at reducing entrée calories. The results suggest the calorie-only label does not really tell those who are the most health conscious any new information, so their entrée choices did not change. But the calorie+traffic light label did appear to provide some new information, leading the most health conscious to choose entrée with fewer calories.

Diners who received menus with calorie information actually ordered more extra calories than those who received none. This suggests they may have experienced a “licensing effect,” meaning they felt that by ordering a lower-calorie entrée that had “license” to order an extra side item or dessert.

Lower calorie entrees were chosen by women, people over age 55, and those who ranked health as the most important characteristic when ordering.

Those with higher education ordered slightly fewer extra calories, while those in larger parties ordered more.

The preferred menu information by 42% of the participants was calorie-only, with only 27.5% choosing the calorie+traffic light. The researchers said this could be interpreted to mean the diners want more calorie information on their menus, but do not want to be told what they should or should not consume (i.e., green = good, red = bad).

What helps you make the best selection when ordering from a restaurant menu?

Trends in Restaurant Food Service for 2013

13 Trends in Restaurant Food Service for 2013

This post was originally written during my 2 1/2 year tenure as a blogger for Health Goes Strong. The site was deactivated on July 1, 2013, but you can read my original blog here.

RESTAURANT FOOD SERVICE NEWS PREDICTS WHAT WE’LL SEE ON MENUS IN THE YEAR AHEAD

After researching all of the predictions by the people in the know, I compiled my own list of restaurant trends we can expect this year to complement my earlier post about food trends for 2013. There is some overlap in what we’ll be buying and preparing at home and what we’ll be ordering off menus, but overall it promises to be another year of adventurous eating!

Restaurant News & Food Service Trends

  1. Big breakfasts aren’t just for weekends. The most important meal of the day is catching on as a way to eat well for less than the cost of a lunch or dinner out. More protein will be seen on menus along with the eggs, such as beef and ham steaks, sausage and chorizo, and salmon and crab.
  2. Vegetables move beyond salads and side dishes. We’ll see more innovative uses of vegetables as entrees, such as cauliflower steak, without necessarily being part of a meat-free meal.
  3. Grown-up flavors appear on kid’s menus. There’ll be real fish in those tacos and a wholesome whole grains in the buns surrounding the sliders, and all of it will be much more nutritious than standard fare kid’s food.
  4. Small plates will be enough for adults. Tapas-style eating will allow you to order some fish or meat, vegetables and starch to make the right-sized meal for any appetite.
  5. Popcorn will be the snack-turned-garnish that is served with everything from soup to ice cream. The beauty of this whole grain is that it can be dusted with any flavor to complement a meal or be a great stand alone snack.
  6. Apps and iPads in the dining room. We’d all like to see fewer cell phones in use when dining, but using a smart phone app or tablet computer to peruse the menu and place your order is technology that’s on its way.
  7. New cuts of beef and more varietals make the grade. Expect to find parts of the cow you’ve never seen before on menu, including the organ meats, for those looking to expand their animal protein options.
  8. “Have it your way” isn’t just at Burger King. Restaurants are ready to accept your special requests for gluten-free, lactose-free, vegan, or whatever else it takes to keep you happy and satisfied.
  9. Food from the Southern Hemisphere is “Nex-Mex.” This year we’ll be moving beyond Mexican cuisine to the flavors and dishes of Argentina, Brazil and Chile.
  10. Adult beverages minus the alcohol make a splash. Specialty cocktails will feature herbs and exotic nectars while distilled ciders and homemade sodas appear on tap.
  11. Sustainable seafood is catching on. Just like knowing where your eggs were laid, cows were milked and tomatoes were harvested, diners will expect to know where the catch of the day was actually caught.
  12. “Know your grower” menu descriptions help sell food. Customers can help support local farmers, cheese-makers, bakers and other providers of sustainable and artisanal foods when they see their wares being advertised on the menu.
  13. Family-style take-out lets you eat out at home. You’ll find special menus in some restaurants for foods you can order in quantity and pick-up packaged with instructions for you to reheat and serve.
Follow these rules to avoid overeating when ordering off restaurant menus.

Save Calories When Ordering Off Restaurant Menus

FOLLOW THESE RULES TO SAVE CALORIES AND AVOID OVEREATING WHEN ORDERING OFF RESTAURANT MENUS

Who doesn’t enjoy the convenience of sitting down in a restaurant and ordering whatever we want off the menu? Apparently most of us do since one third of our meals are eaten away from home.

I covered the downside of splurging over the holidays in a previous blog, but dining out provides an opportunity to over eat all year round. The price we pay is not just rung up at the register. We give up a significant measure of control over the source of the food, how it’s prepared and how much is served to us. And that’s not good.

The only recourse is to follow some rules when you place your order to regain control over what arrives on your plate. It takes a lot more self-control to avoid eating half your meal once it’s served than to simply order wisely so the excess food is not in front of you.

These rules do not replace the need for you to order the foods that fit best into your day of eating. And they don’t ask you to give up all of the foods you love! Instead they give you some additional ways to reduce the chance of splurging when eating out, and that’s a good thing.

CALORIE-SAVING RULES FOR ORDERING OFF RESTAURANT MENUS

BREAKFAST

  • Custom Omelet Rule – Order only 2 eggs, not the customary 3, and only with vegetable add-ins.
  • Breakfast Meats or Eggs Rule – Since side orders of breakfast meats are large, skip the eggs if you really want bacon, sausage or ham.
  • Buttered Toast or Fried Potatoes Rule – Request one or the other with that omelet, egg or breakfast meat order, not both.
  • Pancakes or Toast Rule – No contest, if you’re not ordering pancakes as your breakfast, don’t add them to an egg order.

LUNCH

  • Cheese or Meat Rule – Think Kosher and try not to combine cheese with meat on sandwiches, pizza or burgers. Let sliced tomatoes, onions or mushrooms take its place.
  • 50% Burger or Fries Rule – Split one or the other, but don’t eat a full order of both.
  • No More Than One Fried Food Rule – If you must order something fried, don’t have anything else in your meal fried. That means the traditional “fish and chips” is out.
  • Wet or Dry Salad Rule – The bigger the salad, the more dressing it takes to wet it down. If you’re having an entree salad, be prepared to use just lemon juice, no calorie dressing or wet vegetables to partially moisten it.

DINNER

  • Cocktail or Carbs Rule – For each alcoholic drink you order, be prepared to eliminate a serving of carbohydrate in the form of bread, pasta, rice, potatoes or dessert.
  • Appetizer or Dessert Rule – If your add something to the beginning of your meal, don’t also add something at the end. Sharing is the only other option.
  • Bread & Butter or Dessert Rule – Like an appetizer or a cocktail, you can’t afford to add the extra calories from a basket of bread to the front end of a meal then order dessert on the tail end, too. Check the quality of the bread and the dessert menu to guide your decision.
  • Double Green Vegetable, No White Starch Rule – A double order of any sautéed vegetable will contain fewer calories than a dressed baked potato, creamy mashed potato, rice pilaf, risotto or pasta in sauce.
  • Vegetable-Only Salad Rule – A first course salad picks up a lot of extra calories for every non-vegetable item tossed into it, like dried fruit, nuts, cheese, croutons and bacon. Make sure your salads are made from garden vegetables only.

Find more helpful hints here:

Is Overeating at Christmas Just one More Way to Splurge?

Control unwanted calories when eating out to control weight

Calorie Control Means Weight Control When Eating Out

USE THESE 10 TIPS TO KEEP UNWANTED CALORIES OUT OF YOUR DIET WHEN EATING OUT

Eating out is no longer just for special occasions. For many, eating in restaurants is a means to survival. But with it come all those extra calories from larger portions, hidden ingredients and menu temptations that can wreak havoc on any diet.

If you are trying to control your weight, you’ve got to control those extra calories when eating out. This doesn’t mean you should only order broiled fish and undressed salad. To control unwanted calories you’ve got to control the situation.

Here are 10 Tips for Calorie Control When Eating Out that put you in charge.

  1. Choose wisely when deciding where to eat so you know in advance what’s on the menu.
  2. Decide what you want to eat before looking at the menu to avoid being distracted by tempting choices.
  3. Don’t arrive famished, it’s much harder to resist temptation.
  4. Refuse the complementary bread, tortillas or fried noodles if offered.
  5. Don’t be shy. Ask how things are prepared and request what you want – you’re paying the bill.
  6. Skip the shared appetizers and just pass them along if they weren’t what you ordered.
  7. Listen to your stomach. When you start to feel satisfied, STOP eating and pack up the unfinished food for another meal.
  8. Beware of the effects of alcohol. Cocktails contain calories AND impair your judgment about how much you’re eating.
  9. Fit the meal into your day by making adjustments at other meals so you have room for some of the extras calories.
  10. Remember, there is always tomorrow. When everything just looks too good to pass by, plan a return visit for another meal.

How will you be controlling calories on your next meal out?