While we continue to wait for the final version and then implementation of a new federal menu labeling law requiring calorie counts, further evidence continues to show consumers really don’t care about eating healthy when dining out.

Despite efforts by the government and the stalled menu labeling law mandated in 2010 with the passing of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the vast majority of consumers say even if they eat healthy at home, they want to cut loose when visiting a restaurant.

Only 24 percent of U.S. consumers say they eat healthy when dining out, according to a market research report from The NPD Group, and even with healthier menus and some restaurants already posting calorie counts, consumers still view dining out as an indulgence. Thirty-seven percent of survey respondents said when they eat out, they want to eat what they want. Twenty-three percent said they want to indulge, and 19 percent said they don’t pay attention to the healthfulness of what they order.



“It’s a nice thought that people are eating too much only because they don’t know how many calories are in their food, but eating decisions are really complicated and there are a lot of reasons people eat what they do even if they know what’s in it,” said Julie Downs, the lead author of a study published in the American Journal of Public Health, during a recent radio interview.

The study concludes calorie counts don’t help people make healthier choices, and The NPD Group’s data seems to back that up. An earlier NPD study showed even health conscious customers weren’t necessarily opting for the healthiest items on the menu, instead choosing smaller portions, not finishing their meals or skipping extras like beverages, appetizers and desserts.

“It would benefit foodservice operators to promote the message that eating healthy at restaurants doesn’t always mean giving up your favorite foods,” says Bonnie Riggs, NPD’s restaurant industry analyst. “Providing the opportunity for menu customization will keep these healthier diners happy, while also satisfying the tastes of the more indulgent consumers.”  

Downs, an associate research professor at Decision Science at Carnegie Mellon, said people using information like calorie counts are the ones already watching what they eat. But, she added, “we still have large populations who are eating far more calories than they should and the labels don’t seem to be bringing that down.”

The new law, set to take effect sometime this year, will mandate chain restaurants and retail food establishments with more than 20 locations display calorie counts on all menus and menu boards.

What does this mean for you? Follow the law if you qualify, and if you don’t, consider offering healthy options and making nutritional information available upon request to satisfy that segment of customers.