People who know how many calories are in their food choose to eat more healthily, a study has found.
While millions enjoy meals out at restaurants and cafes, chef-cooked food can be surprisingly fattening.
Researchers have discovered that people actively choose healthier options when they can see how many calories are in their meals.
In a study, people reduced their calorie intake by three per cent when they were given a menu with the nutritional information on it.
But people still treat themselves – despite a small reduction in calories in their appetisers and main courses, dessert and drink choices were unchanged.
Even chefs themselves were shocked at how many calories were in some of their dishes.
The research comes as the UK Government is considering passing a law to require all restaurants, cafes and takeaways to display calorie counts on their menus, while many states in the US already have similar rules.
People eating in restaurants which show the number of calories in a meal on the menu order starters and mains with, on average, 45 fewer calories than people who are given normal menus
A study by Cornell University in Ithaca, New York monitored a total of 5,550 diners in two restaurants in the US.
Groups of people were randomly given menus either with or without the number of calories showing next to each meal.
Their choices were noted and they filled out questionnaires about themselves so experts could be sure their results weren’t influenced by other factors.
The research found people who knew how many calories would be in their food ate on average 45 fewer calories – three percent of the total.
UK COULD FORCE ALL FOOD OUTLETS TO DISPLAY CALORIES
The British Government could push through a law requiring all restaurants, cafes and takeaways to provide customers with calorie counts on their menus.
A public consultation has begun on the plans, which have met opposition from another area of the government and a health charity.
The Treasury is said to oppose the move, warning it would be ‘burdensome’ to 26,000 small businesses and could force them to raise prices and cut jobs.
And health charity Beat warned it would exacerbate eating disorders and cause ‘great distress’ to patients with conditions such as anorexia or bulimia.
But public health minister Steve Brine argued: ‘Families want to know what they are eating when on the go.
‘This is not about forcing anyone to eat certain things, or companies to behave in a certain way, but I firmly believe we have a right to know the nutritional content of the food we give to our children.’
Although 45 calories is not a lot – it is the equivalent of about half a banana or a whole apple – it could add up for people who often eat out.
Appetiser and main course choices improved slightly but drinks and desserts were not changed, suggesting people were still able to eat what they wanted.
Study author Professor John Cawley said: ‘Even if you’re an educated person who eats out a lot and is aware of nutrition, there can still be surprising things in these calorie counts.’
Scientists discovered people find calorie information useful, and suggest requiring restaurants to provide it by law could be an efficient way to improve health.
‘It’s clear that people value this information,’ Professor Cawley added.
‘It’s a cheap policy to put in place, and the fact that there is a reduction in calories ordered makes it appealing.’
Even the chefs cooking the dishes were startled by the number of calories in some foods such as a tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich.
‘They would have said it was one of the lower-calorie items on the menu,’ added co-author Alex Susskind.
All meals in the study had a calorie count between 200 and 1,840 calories, and people’s orders contained an average of about 1,500 calories.
The recommended amount of calories an average adult should eat in a day is 2,000 for women or 2,500 for men.
The team’s findings were published in the Naional Bureau of Economic Research.