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Fighting Obesity With Better-Designed Menus

New research finds calorie counts can be effective—if the figures are properly placed.
Calories are listed next to menu items in a McDonald's on July 18th, 2008, in New York City.

Calories are listed next to menu items in a McDonald's on July 18th, 2008, in New York City.

Earlier this month, a new federal law went into effect requiring large chain restaurants to provide calorie counts on their menus. This was met with a shrug—a reasonable response given that research has found this information seldom inspires diners to make healthier choices.

It's easy to conclude that we're simply too addicted to high-fat, high-sugar foods for a few digits to make a difference. But a new study suggests a simple fix could greatly increase their effectiveness.

All a restaurant has to do is place the calorie count in front of the item's name, so that the count is the first piece of information to register with the hungry customer.

"Calling calorie labeling a failed policy may be premature," writes a research team led by Steven Dallas of New York University. "Calorie labels may have little effect when presented to the right of food items, as they currently typically are, but have considerable effect when presented to the left."

As the researchers explain, "It seems you're more likely to order a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese—760 calories" than a "760 calories Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese."

In the Journal of Consumer Psychology, Dallas and his colleagues describe a series of studies that support that idea. The first featured 150 people who were standing in line to place their order at a "casual chain restaurant on an American college campus."

Each was presented with "a paper copy of the restaurant's menu, and asked to circle the items that they planned to order," the researchers report.

One-third of customers saw a version in which the calorie count was listed in front of each item; another third saw a more standard version, in which it was listed directly afterwards; and a final third saw a menu with no calorie counts at all. Participants looked at the menu and circled the items they intended to purchase.

The placement made a difference. Customers' choices contained significantly fewer calories if the count was placed to the left of the item. In contrast, placing it to the right had no significant effect; calorie counts were approximately the same for those customers and those who received no calorie data.

"A follow-up lab study involving real food choices replicated these results," the researchers write. So did an online study featuring 275 people, which found placing the information in front of the item's name "increases the weight that participants place on it when deciding not to order, which results in lower-calorie food choices."

Their final study featured 254 Hebrew-speaking Israelis. The researchers figured that, since Hebrew is read from right to left, they should find the opposite effect when this sample performed the same experiment. And indeed they did: Participants ordered significantly fewer calories when the count was placed to the right of the item's name.

As Dallas and his colleagues note, these results suggest an easy fix that has "important practical value," given the obesity epidemic. It seems that, sometimes, to make good choices, we need more than just information: We need that data to be the first thing that we read.

Would you like a 380-calorie serving of fries with that nugget of information?

Didn't think so.