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Do calorie counts on fast-food menus really impact a person’s decision-making? Sort of, according to Taco Bell study

Published by Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD on May 11, 2024

Posting calorie counts on fast food and restaurant chains may somewhat impact a person’s food choices at these establishments, potentially contributing to improved health outcomes.



Let’s be honest – fast food has become ubiquitous in the United States. In other words, it’s here to stay. From large cities to small rural towns, fast food has invaded and infiltrated into every corner from sea to shining sea. However, as a registered dietitian, I strongly advise against frequent consumption of fast food. I’m not saying I’m totally against eating at these establishments and occasionally, I do. But, I work with patients with diabetes and heart disease – serious medical conditions – who need to be informed of more nourishing, nutrient-dense foods that supports and not harms their health.

Fast food establishments often provide menu items packed with excessive calories, unhealthy fats, and high levels of sodium and sugar. In contrast, I collaborate and work with patients to select nourishing, healthy, nutrient-dense foods that are rich in essential nutrients, fostering improved overall health outcomes. That’s my job.

Yet, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, over one-third (36.6%) of American adults indulge in fast food about 1-3 times a week. That’s approximately 84.8 million adults opting for fast food daily! These statistics shed light on the widespread consumption of fast food, urging us to consider healthier eating habits.

People ordering fast food

People ordering fast food

In today’s fast-paced world, the allure of quick and convenient fast-food meals often overshadows concerns about their nutritional content. However, recent research shows how a seemingly minor detail—calorie counts on menus—can nudge consumers towards healthier choices.

Research looks closely at impact of calorie counts on menus

These days, restaurant chains are mandated to display calorie counts alongside their menu items, a requirement enforced by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) since 2018 for certain types of eateries. This measure, prompted by the escalating rates of obesity and diet-related chronic illnesses, aims to empower customers to make healthier choices by providing them with readily available nutritional information. Now, a study published in JAMA Network Open underscores the impact of this policy, although in a modest manner.

Taco Bell menu board

Taco Bell Menu Board

The study was conducted at various Taco Bell locations which revealed a practical implication of calorie counts on menus. It found that when calorie information was displayed, patrons made slightly healthier choices, consuming an average of 25 fewer calories per purchase. While this reduction may seem ridiculously small, it aligns with similar findings from other settings, suggesting that even minor changes can cumulatively impact dietary habits.

The study’s analysis of over 2,300 Taco Bell outlets revealed nuanced insights. Calorie labels were most influential during breakfast hours, suggesting that consumers may be more health-conscious earlier in the day. However, late-night indulgences showed no significant change, which emphasizes the complex interplay of consumer behavior and nutritional awareness.

While the study’s findings are encouraging, it’s essential to consider the broader context. Fast-food chains like Taco Bell still offer a wide range of high-calorie options, drawing attention to the role of individual responsibility in making informed choices. However, armed with calorie information, diners can strategically navigate menus to mitigate the impact on their health.

For instance, opting for the Cheese Quesadilla over the Grilled Cheese Burrito saves a substantial 250 calories, while choosing Black Beans instead of Nacho Fries slashes an additional 270 calories. These simple swaps reduce calorie intake and offer nutritional benefits like increased fiber content.

In conclusion

Ultimately, while calorie counts may not revolutionize fast-food consumption overnight, they empower consumers to make incremental improvements to their dietary habits. By embracing this knowledge and exercising discernment in their choices, individuals can savor the convenience of fast food without compromising their well-being.


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Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD

Cheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD is a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in Dietetics and Nutrition from the University of Kansas and a bachelor’s degree in Dietetics and Institutional Management from Kansas State University. She is a clinical dietitian for Cotton O’Neil Clinics in Topeka and Osage City; an adjunct professor for Allen Community College, Burlingame, KS where she teaches Basic Nutrition; and is a freelance writer and blog contributor for Dr. David Samadi, Urologic Oncologist Expert and World Renowned Robotic Surgeon in New York City. Cheryl is also the author of The Nourished Brain, The Latest Science on Food’s Power for Protecting the Brain from Alzheimers and Dementia and The Prediabetes Action Plan and Cookbook, both available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback editions.

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