MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Calorie counts are now the law of the land. Beginning today, all restaurant chains with 20 or more locations must post calories on menus or menu boards. NPR's Allison Aubrey looks at how this may influence our eating habits.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Like it or not, it's now a lot harder to ignore calories when you eat out. And Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest argues this is a good thing.
MARGO WOOTAN: Here we are at Starbucks in Washington, D.C., looking at the calories that are now posted on their menus.
AUBREY: Starbucks was an early adopter. The chain began posting calories several years ago. And what's happened to their pastry offerings?
WOOTAN: The size of the muffins, the scones, the size of the coffee cakes are all a little bit smaller, not so much smaller that people would notice but enough to make a difference in the calorie count.
AUBREY: A few studies now show that when restaurants introduce calorie posts, people tend to cut back. One review estimates that on average, people purchase about 50 fewer calories per meal. This might not sound like a lot, but it can add up, says FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb.
SCOTT GOTTLIEB: With about a third of meals eaten away from home, this is meaningful.
AUBREY: It's actually enough, he says, to help people fend off weight gain.
GOTTLIEB: If you look at what drives obesity, it's not necessarily binge eating where someone might go out and have a big meal on a weekend.
AUBREY: What drives it is eating a little too much every day for years. Gottlieb says if you cut back by about 50 calories a day, that's about 18,000 fewer calories over the course of one year, which could leave you 3 to 5 pounds slimmer. Margo Wootan says calorie postings can help people make these small cuts because the guesswork is gone. Consider this example.
This looks like a healthy option here. What is it?
WOOTAN: So that's the tomato and mozzarella panini has 350 calories.
AUBREY: Not much at all for a sandwich. Compare that to the lentil bowl sitting just next to it. It has 300 more calories.
WOOTAN: Usually, my rule of thumb is to go with a bowl over a sandwich because once you cut the bread, you cut calories. But in this case, it's just the opposite.
AUBREY: Wootan says this just goes to show how off our instincts might be.
WOOTAN: One of the things I like best about menu labeling is in a split-second decision, you can cut hundreds or more calories from your diet without much of a sacrifice.
AUBREY: Just by choosing one option over another. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.