Can putting calorie counts on restaurant menus help reduce obesity?
Monday, March 21, 2016

A University of Iowa economist is studying how obesity rates are affected in communities where restaurants publish the calorie counts of the food they serve, an effort that is part of a broader campaign to reduce the number of Americans who are overweight.

David Frisvold, assistant professor of economics in the Tippie College of Business, has been working on the study since 2011, collecting menus and the nutritional content of menu items in places where local ordinances require restaurants to publish calorie counts. Calorie-posting requirements will be implemented later in 2016 as part of the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA) so diners can more accurately determine the nutritional content of the food they order.

Frisvold says previous studies linked obesity and dining out; people who eat more often at restaurants consume more calories because they don’t realize how many calories restaurant meals contain. More Americans are dining out more often, and some researchers believe this is one of the causes of the country’s obesity epidemic.

In response, many governments—including city councils in New York City and Philadelphia—passed laws that require restaurants to publish calorie counts on their menus so diners are more aware of how many calories they’re consuming. Frisvold says preliminary evidence suggests that body mass index (BMI) fell over time in counties with municipalities that require calorie notification, relative to nearby counties.

On the other hand, he says prior research on local menu-labeling laws primarily examines changes in items ordered at large chain restaurants and generally finds small or no changes in diners' ordering habits after calorie counts are posted on menus.

“Such a narrow focus misses numerous other potential changes in restaurant menus and consumer behavior due to these requirements,” Frisvold says. To get what he hopes to be a more comprehensive picture, his study will evaluate the ACA's menu-labeling requirement on restaurant menu offerings and prices, consumer eating habits, physical activity, and body mass index and obesity.

He recently was awarded a $1.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the nationwide impact of menu labeling. Aside from collecting menus, Frisvold leads a team that has been surveying consumers since 2015 and will conduct three additional surveys in the next two years. They will continue to collect menu data for another three years.

The project will also use health databases that measure obesity rates and compare data from before and after the menu labeling requirements took effect.

Frisvold says he expects this project to improve researchers’ understanding of the impact that greater access to information has on obesity rates, as well as the mechanisms through which calorie posting influences obesity.