Restaurant menu show signs of a slim-down

Large restaurant chains are slimming down new items amid pending federal regulations about menu labeling, a new study found.

Items introduced last year by big restaurant chains came in with 12 percent fewer calories than ones launched in 2012, according to the study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

"I think that chain restaurants are quietly trying to get ahead of the curve and create offerings that don't have that shock value," said the study's lead author, associate professor of health policy Sara Bleich.

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At the 66 chains analyzed, the decreases were mainly found in new entrees, which saw calories drop 10 percent. Counts in children's items fell by a fifth, the most of the various categories.

"Given that federal menu labeling provisions are not yet in effect, the observed declines in newly introduced menu items may be capturing voluntary actions by large chain restaurants to increase the transparency of nutritional information," the study said.

As part of Obamacare, large restaurant chains are required to provide calorie information to customers, though specific rules from the FDA haven't yet been decided or implemented.

While the results are noteworthy, there are several important things to keep in mind.

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"What we can't show is just because lower calorie items are available, it doesn't mean people are purchasing them," Bleich said in a phone interview.

In the past, restaurants have had trouble generating sufficient demand for some of these lighter items.

Burger King's Satisfries were an example of a lower calorie item launched in 2013 that generated significant publicity. Only about a third of locations decided to keep the healthier fries on the menu, though, after the fast-food giant let franchisees decide whether to phase them out.

Also, mean menu calories only marginally decreased and only new menu items showed the 12 percent drop.

At restaurants that had a specific food focus, calorie declines were bigger among those that were not central to that focus. Indeed, core items at burger and chicken restaurants actually became more caloric.

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The findings could have broad implications for the obesity epidemic since a big chunk of people eat at fast-food restaurants each day. About a third of children, 41 percent of adolescents and 36 percent of adults dine there on an average day, the report noted.

"The main take-home point of the study is it doesn't take a lot of additional calories to increase weight over time," Bleich said.

"If you can get each one of those people to take in 60 fewer calories, that could potentially have a significant impact on obesity," she added.