What difference do calorie counts on menus make?

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  • On average, Americans get one in five calories from restaurants
  • Healthier menu choices based on number of calories can add years to patrons' lives
  • Calorie labelling in restaurants may also eventually save billions in healthcare costs

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Calorie labelling requirements for menus in US restaurant chains could save tens of thousands of lives and billions of dollars in healthcare and other costs, a new study claims.

Researchers created a model to assess what would happen if the labelling rule led to moderate calorie reductions among 1 million Americans, aged 35 to 80.

Between 2018, when the law went into effect, and 2023, healthier menu choices could prevent 14 698 new cases of heart disease (including 1 575 deaths) and 21 522 new type 2 diabetes cases, the study concluded. Healthier menu choices could add 8 749 years of life (in good health).

Over a lifetime, healthier menu choices could head off an estimated 135 781 new cases of heart disease (including 27 646 deaths); prevent 99 736 cases of type 2 diabetes; and add 367 450 years of life (in good health), researchers concluded.

More calories at home

That translates to a savings of up to $14 billion (R243 billion) in healthcare costs, as well as up to $5 billion (R87 billion) in lost productivity and other costs, according to the study recently published in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes.

"Prior to Covid-19, Americans were relying on restaurants for one in five calories, on average. Most likely, we will come to rely on them again. Our study shows that menu calorie labelling may prevent meaningful disease and save billions of dollars in healthcare costs," said co-author Dr Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University in Boston.

Based on prior studies of food labelling, the model suggested that calorie counts on menus would result in 7% fewer calories eaten during an average restaurant meal.

But researchers conservatively assumed that half of the "saved" restaurant calories would be offset by additional calories consumed by diners elsewhere, such as at home.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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