Does Calorie-Labeling Affect Your Weight?

Can calorie labeling affect how much weight you gain or lose? Yes, say researchers who recently conducted the first long-term study on the impact of calorie labeling on body weight. The study shows that when used in universities, calorie labeling can reduce weight gain in students by nearly eight pounds.

Tape Measure next to Nutrition FactsThe research also showed that consistent exposure to prominent calorie labeling of main meals reduced the likelihood of young adults gaining any weight over a one-year period by 50 percent. While recent guidance from the United States Affordable Care Act and the United Kingdoms Responsibility Deal encourage calorie labeling in chain restaurants, there have been mixed results as to the effects of calorie labeling on consumers meal choices and weight status.

The Study

  • The study examined food choices and weights of university students from two 36-week academic years.

  • In the first year the college dining room displayed caloric information for main meals for a pilot period of five out of 36 weeks.

  • In the second year, caloric information was displayed on large and colorful cards for all main meals for 30 out of 36 weeks.


The Results

  • During the first year students gained an average of 7.7 pounds.

  • In the second year students maintained their average initial weight unchanged.

  • In year two most students reported using the calorie labeling for weight control and healthier eating and overall ordered meals with 18 percent fewer calories than in year one. These meals had less fat, saturated fat and frying oils than meals ordered in year one.

  • There was no decline in micronutrient consumption in year two.


Calorie labeling helps people understand whats in their food and makes them aware of healthier options, says lead researcher and Obesity Society member Charoula Konstantina Nikolaou. Previous literature has shown little or no benefit from calorie labeling, however, that research did not look at long-term exposure. In those studies, most consumers did not notice the calorie labels. We were glad to see that exposure to our very prominent calorie labeling for an entire school year did not just reduce weight gain in these students, but eliminated it altogether for the group. This is especially important because young adults are vulnerable to weight gain which often leads to obesity later in life.

This study consisted of a very low-cost, transferable, effective intervention. The lower cost of ingredients offset the complaints from food companies and caterers that healthier ingredients are more costly. The caterers were also impressed because their spending on food ingredients was lowered by 33 percent during the year with calories labeling, said research supervisor and Professor Mike Lean.

Although this policy is encouraged in the United States and the United Kingdom for large chain restaurants to present caloric content for menu items, this study reminds us that there isnt any legislature for cafeterias at universities, schools or workplaces to display this type of information, added Sara Belich, PhD., Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The sooner policy makers better understand these associations between calorie labeling and weight loss, the closer we will all be to making better food choices.

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