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Calories on Menus: Boomers, Women Are Paying Attention


Who pays attention to calorie counts on menus? By next year, all large chain restaurants will be required to post those harsh numbers, so the Gallup research people decided to find out who really takes note of them.

In a survey conducted last month of 2,027 American adults, they found that only 43 percent  pay "a great deal" or a "fair amount" of attention. In fact, more Americans - 68 percent - look at nutritional information on food packages than calories on a menu.

But when the results are broken down by age and gender, it's a different story. Women are much more likely than men, and adults ages 50 to 64 are more likely than those under 30, to take a hard look at calories.

The survey found that 47 percent of boomers (ages 50 to 64) look at nutritional info on menus and 74 percent of them look at it on food packages. In comparison, only a third of those under-30 look at menu calories, and about half check out nutrition numbers on food packages.

Those age 65 and older are also avid readers: 70 percent read food packages, 45 percent look at menu calories.

When it comes to women, half of them (49 percent) eyeball the calorie counts on menus compared with just 36 percent of men. About 60 percent of men pay attention to nutrition information on food items, compared with 73 percent of women.

The survey is the latest in a number of studies all purporting to show that when many menus start including calorie counts next year - as required by a provision of the 2010 Affordable Care Act - consumers aren't really going to care.

There's the New York-funded study of fast-food receipts that found that only one in six people used the information to reduce their calories by 11 percent (about 96 calories). And a Stanford University study of Starbucks locations that discovered that calories dropped just 6 percent at locations that posted calories. And the recent Carnegie Mellon study that found that giving people educational pamphlets on recommended calorie consumption before they entered a McDonald's made no difference - in fact, there was a slight increase in their calorie consumption.

Yet, obviously, some people are changing their choices when they see calorie numbers and more may do so as the information becomes more widespread and accepted - similar to food package nutrition data.

As Gallup explained: "Americans' level of attention to nutritional information in restaurants may increase as the practice of posting such information become more common. It is possible, though, that people are more flexible when eating out - and more likely to choose less healthy food options - than they are when deciding what to purchase at the grocery store."

More important, the restaurants care about revealing those (sometimes) damning numbers and some large chains - such as Darden Restaurants, which owns Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse - are tweaking their entrees accordingly, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The chain has added lower-calorie choices to their menus and plans to reduce sodium and calories 10 percent by 2016 and 20 percent by 2021. Calorie counts have been added to the menus of 180 Darden restaurants, even though a spokesman admitted that "some people hate it. They think, 'Uh, I didn't want to know that.'"

Even the Cheesecake Factory, whose behemoth portions regularly land on the Center for Science in the Public Interest's annual Xtreme Eating list of highest calorie dishes, is reducing calories on some of its pasta entrees.

As Cheesecake Factory CEO David Overton told the Journal, "I was sick of winning that prize."

Photo: eyeliam via flickr


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