The Skinny on Menu Calories: Pros and Cons of Published Calorie Counts

For many healthy-minded consumers, calorie postings on menus and menu boards greatly impact their decision when making food selections. While grabbing food on the go, it’s useful to know how this item will fit into a person’s allotted daily calories. Even though it may not feel like overeating, before you know it, you’ve consumed over half of the recommended daily calories.

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For instance, see the calories in typical menu items. Seeing and internalizing the number of calories allows us to realize that snacks and seemingly healthy foods may, in fact, not be so healthy at all.

  • Medium fries – 380 calories
  • Gourmet cupcake – 300-600 calories
  • Grilled chicken salad with dressing – 400 calories

Our country’s obesity epidemic is growing exponentially much like the waistbands of many Americans. Just twenty years ago, no states had obesity rates above 15 percent. Today, 38 states have obesity rates more than 25 percent and the U.S. national obesity rate is a record 37.5 percent. Americans are eating more of their food outside their homes, whether dining out, purchasing prepared food, or grabbing a vending machine treat.

Back in 2024, President Obama passed the ‘Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’, also known as Obamacare, requiring calorie labeling of menus. This was done in an effort to prevent this epidemic from spiraling out of control and help consumers make informed, healthier decisions about foods they eat. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration stated that calorie counts be posted on menus in chain restaurants, retail food establishments, and vending machines; all with 20 or more locations. Over three years passed and this law has not been carried out to its full extent. Some food establishments took preemptive action and labeled their menus, while others haven’t complied, as the law is still under discussion. Many debate the cost of this initiative versus its suggested benefit. Let’s look at the proposal’s pros and cons below.


  • Facilitates healthier eating by arming the public with information to better understand what they eat.
  • Empowers consumers to accurately track and limit their caloric intake to an average 1,800-2,000 calorie per day diet.
  • Targets the prevention of chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, and hypertension; common diseases linked with obesity.
  • Expands the scope of nutrition education by requiring the visible display of calorie information in additional locations.


  • Additional cost to restaurants and supermarkets for analyzing their food products to determine calorie information; printing new menus, food boards, displays, etc.
  • Fear that sales of higher calorie, typically more profitable, foods will drop.
  • Lack of distinction between beneficial or “empty” calories.

How to Navigate These New Menus

Here are some tips to help you with the task of making healthful choices within the parameters of this proposal.

  • Load a free calorie-counter app on your mobile phone to help you stay on track throughout the day.
  • Switch up your morning coffee routine and order a skinny vanilla latte made with skim milk instead of the full-fat version.
  • Choose whole grain options.
  • Roasted, grilled, and steamed dishes are healthier than their fried counterparts.
  • Ask for salad dressing on the side.
  • Split an entrée with a friend or have a portion of the meal packed up for later.
  • If you have more questions about ingredients or other nutritional information, ask!

Overall, this proposal is a huge step in the right direction by enabling and motivating consumers to make healthy decisions. Only time will tell, but hopefully Americans will utilize the information given to them.


Author Aimee Zipkin is a registered dietitian with a passion for delicious food and providing nutrition education. Aimee received her MS in Nutrition and Public Health from Teachers College, Columbia University and completed a rigorous clinical dietetic internship through North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System. Follow her on Twitter at @AimeeZipkin.

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