Low Calorie Menus

By Bobby Fitzgerald  Published Jan 12th, 2012


In 2012 the FDA will require any restaurant with more than 20 locations to list calorie counts on all printed menus, menu boards and even drive thrus. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 65 percent of Americans are overweight and a third are considered obese. While diet habits are a complex issue, the FDA sees that away-from-home eating is a direct contributor to the nation’s obesity crisis.

When the trend of listing calories started spreading across the country a few years ago in places ahead of the curve such as New York City, California, Seattle and Portland, initial calorie sticker shock was common. Quickly restaurants overhauled their menus to provide more diet-friendly options and even started offering specific low-cal menus. But the real question is--do people actually scale back their ordering because of this calorie knowledge?

Researchers immediately set forth to determine how calorie information affects diners selections. Published in the International Journal of Obesity (February 2011), research shows that calorie counts do not inspire diners to order lower calorie or less fattening meals than before. The study was based on choices made at New York City restaurants where legislation required mandatory calorie labeling at any restaurant with 15 or more locations since July 2008. Findings at more than 14 locations of common fast food restaurants like KFC, Burger King and Wendy’s showed that only one in seven customers actually altered their ordering behavior because of the calorie information.

Yet not all hope is lost. In a report published in the British Medical Journal, restaurants that listed a separate low calorie menu showed a “significant drop in calories of customers’ orders”. The restaurants showing the most success in altering customer’s ordering behavior are the ones that offer a larger selection of low-calorie choices and those with a dedicated low calorie menu section. As these details spread, many chains have started redesigning their menus to do their part in combating the obesity epidemic.

Panera Bread Co. overhauled its entire menu, reducing meats, bread and mayonnaise to lower calorie counts on sandwiches that had more than 1,000 calories. Panera was ahead of the curve when they started listing calories on all menu boards nation wide in April 2010.

Breakfast favorite IHOP now offers a Simple & Fit menu that lists 15 choices with 600 calories or less of breakfast classics such as whole wheat French toast, fruit crepes and a turkey bacon and Swiss cheese omelet. Additionally, IHOP’s entire children menu has fewer than 600 calories.

At Starbucks, it isn’t just the beverages that have undergone a calorie facelift. The company now offers baked goods, bistro boxes, hot breakfast sandwiches, salads, paninis, parfaits and petite cake bites all with 350 or fewer calories. All items are denoted as “Favorite Foods Under 350 Calories”. When it comes to the drinks, Starbucks has lightened up everything from its frappuccinos to lattes offering over a dozen delicious drinks under 200 calories.

Even ice cream chain Baskin-Robbins has jumped on the low-calorie bandwagon with its BRight Choices menu. This includes fat-free, dairy-free, no sugar added and low calorie treats. All choices have 150 or fewer calories and less than 5 grams of fat per 2.5 ounce scoop.