Calorie Labeling Becomes Mandatory for Menus

Recent data from the USDA indicates that Americans consume approximately 1/3rd of their calories from food prepared outside the home. A 2014 study that analyzed nutrition information from full service restaurant chains found that an adult entrée, side item, and ½ an appetizer contained on average 1,495 calories. The authors also pointed out that food from sit-down restaurants, when compared to fast-food establishments, is not necessarily lower in calories and other nutrients such as saturated fat and sodium. This one study is an example of how restaurant dining can easily result in the over consumption of daily calories when compensating at other meals and snacks does not occur. A large body of evidence has shown eating out more frequently is associated with higher calorie intake, overweight and obesity, and lower overall diet quality.

On May 7th, federal regulations part of the Affordable Care Act went into effect requiring menu items at restaurants, supermarkets, and other retail food establishments to disclose calorie amounts on menus. Calorie labeling will affect businesses that have 20 or more locations operating under the same name. This law will provide consumers with basic calorie information on restaurant displays to help them make more informed decisions when purchasing food they are not preparing for themselves. Current research indicates a knowledge gap exists regarding the nutrition content of foods eaten out.

How can you use calorie labeling as a useful tool?

First, determine approximately how many calories your body needs based on your specific goals. Take advantage of this free Body Weight Planner online tool developed by the National Institutes of Health. Next, divide your total calorie needs by how many meals you typically eat in a day to come up with a total calories per meal pattern. If you determine your total daily calorie needs are around 1500 per day, finding a meal option that equals about 350–550 calories is a reasonable choice when dining out. If you determine your calorie needs are slightly higher around 1800–2000 per day, a restaurant meal containing between 500–700 calories is a reasonable guideline.

Calories are not the only variable used to analyze overall diet quality; however, it is vital that consumers start using this readily available nutrition information to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight since dining out is a part of our everyday lives.

Michael Sandoz, MS, RD, LDN, CDE


Kushner, R. F., Kushner, N., Blatner, D. J., & American Dietetic Association. (2009). Counseling overweight adults: The lifestyle patterns approach and toolkit. Chicago: American Dietetic Association.