Researchers have suggested that restaurants could help tackle obesity by expanding and improving calorie listings and “healthy eating” options on their websites and mobile apps, encouraging customers to self-monitor what they eat.

The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, analyzed the top 100 US chain restaurants’ websites to assess the availability and ease of access to calorie information.

According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 2007 and 2010, adults consumed around 11.3% of their daily caloric intake from fast food. Around one-third of the US population is obese, and previous research has shown that restaurant eating contributes to this.

The study authors say that when a person is inside a restaurant, psychological and biological responses to “in-store marketing” can encourage people to overeat.

Therefore, the researchers wanted to investigate how customers might be “better prepared” and opt for healthier menu items.

Gary Bennett, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, says:

If consumers wait until they enter restaurants to make purchasing decisions, it might be too late.

Particularly for those who are watching their waistlines, it is important to make plans before stepping through the restaurant doors.

That is why we were interested in understanding whether and how calorie information was available online.”

Results of the analysis revealed that:

  • 82% of restaurants provided calorie information on their websites
  • 25% of restaurants showed calorie information on a mobile-formatted website
  • 51.2% of restaurants linked their calorie information directly to the homepage
  • Around 50% of restaurants highlighted “healthy eating” options
  • Quick service/fast casual, larger restaurants, those with cheaper entrées, and/or lower revenue were more likely to have calorie information available.
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Healthy options and calorie listings on restaurant websites are more powerful than on menus, the researchers say.

Additionally, the findings showed that only 46.3% of the restaurants had an online area dedicated to healthy eating options.

From this, the researchers say that increasing “healthy option” features on restaurant websites and mobile apps could assist consumers in making healthy eating choices when dining out.

However, a previous study from the university suggested that simply listing healthy eating options on menus inside restaurants did not encourage people to choose healthier options, showing that more modern methods may be the way forward.

The study authors say that restaurant food can be a big contributor to weight gain due to the unhealthy ingredients, and previous findings support this.

Medical News Today reported 2013 research in Nutrition Action Healthletter revealing that many major US fast food restaurants serve meals in excess of a person’s total recommended calorie allowance.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in April 2013 proposed two regulations that would ensure calorie labeling on menus and menu boards in chain restaurants, retail food establishments, and vending machines with 20 or more locations. However, these regulations have not yet been confirmed.

“It’s wonderful to see regulators doing more to help consumers make informed purchasing decisions,” says Prof. Bennett.

“However, we will need to adapt these policies to the emerging evidence, which suggests that simply placing calories on restaurant menus will not be sufficient.”