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Low-Calorie Menus Harmful?

When you hear that a food or a meal has been labeled "low calorie", what comes to mind? Does that label make it more or less appealing to you? What do you think it means about how the food will taste? Are you more or less likely to order it at a restaurant?

Is this what you think of, when you hear "low calorie" dinner?

Is this what you think of, when you hear "low calorie" dinner?

There has been a good deal of public health effort geared at informing the public about the nutritional value (or lack thereof) in restaurant foods. As a dietitian, I consider it a big win that people have information at their fingertips about how many calories are in foods. This is how people can make informed choices, better choices, for their health. Or is it?

A new study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, shows that when menus have a separate section specifically for low-calorie options, people are less likely to pick dishes from that section.

What?!

When a menu lists the number of calories next to the menu item, consumers tend to choose lower calorie items. But as soon as the lower calorie options are grouped into a "Low Calorie" category, consumers are less likely to even consider those choices. 

We have come to expect that if something is good for us, it must not taste good. At the very least, it won't fill us up, and we will leave very dissatisfied. And so, while the information is there for us to put into practice, consumers are regularly choosing the HIGHER calorie options.

Sometimes it is true, that lower calorie items aren't as delicious, or aren't as satisfying (read: won't leave you stuffed). But more restaurants are seeing the demand for healthier options, which means there is more of a demand for GOOD healthy options.

What do you think? Do you prefer seeing a specific section for lower calorie menu items? Or would you prefer to first find the things that sound tasty and choose from there?