Restaurant menus: calories, caloric density, and serving size

Am J Prev Med. 2012 Sep;43(3):249-55. doi: 10.1016/j.amepre.2012.05.018.


Background: The increasing trend toward eating out, rather than at home, along with concerns about the adverse nutritional profile of restaurant foods has prompted the introduction of calorie labeling. However, the calorie content in food from sit-down and fast-food restaurants has not been analyzed.

Purpose: The calorie content of restaurant foods was analyzed in order to better understand how factors that determine calorie content may potentially influence the effectiveness of calorie labeling.

Methods: Nutritional information was collected from the websites of major (N=85) sit-down and fast-food restaurants across Canada in 2010. A total of 4178 side dishes, entrées, and individual items were analyzed in 2011.

Results: There was substantial variation in calories both within and across food categories. In all food categories, sit-down restaurants had higher calorie counts compared to fast-food restaurants (p<0.05). Both serving size and caloric density were positively correlated with calories; however, serving size was more strongly correlated (r = 0.62) compared to caloric density (r = 0.29). On average, items that were higher in calories had a larger serving size compared to items that were lower in calories (p<0.05); however, they were often not different in terms of caloric density.

Conclusions: Variation in calories per serving was seen when comparing various types of food, types of establishments, and the specific establishments that provided the foods. Compared to caloric density, serving size was shown to be a more important driver of calories per serving in restaurant foods.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Canada
  • Energy Intake*
  • Feeding Behavior
  • Food Labeling / statistics & numerical data*
  • Humans
  • Restaurants / standards*