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Apr 22, 2014 08:04 AM EDT

Low-Calorie Menus Do Not Help People to Make Better Food Choices, Study

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Restaurants that offer a separate "low-calorie" food item section on their menus more likely prevent people from choosing healthy options, according to a Georgia State University and Columbia University study.

Researchers said that until now it was thought that including a category of low-calorie choices encourages people to adopt a healthy diet. But the new study suggests that having a separate section actually backfires.

"Because most restaurant menus are quite complex -- offering numerous dishes composed of multiple ingredients -- diners try to simplify their decision. People have come to expect low-calorie food to taste bad or not fill them up," study researchers said in a statement. "We propose that by calorie organizing a menu, restaurants make it easier for people to use the general 'low-calorie' label to dismiss all low-calorie options early in the decision process."

For the study, researchers conducted four experiments where participants were asked to choose items from the menu and guess the calorie content of the dish. For one of the experiments, researchers asked 272 people with an average age of 31 to select a dish and beverage from the menu at the Timmy's Diner, Huffington Post reports.

However, participants were given three kinds of the same menu: traditional menu that listed all the items, the second one had calorie information beside each food item and the third menu was arranged according to calorie content and included a separate section specially for dishes below 700 calories.

The researchers found that participants who were given traditional menus and the menus with a separate section of low-calorie food consumed the same amount of calories. While the participants who received menus with calorie information ate meals with fewer calories, overall.

"When a menu is calorie posted but not calorie organized, it is less likely that the caloric-content of the dishes will be used as an initial filter for eliminating large portions of the menu," the researchers conclude. "For the consumer, this means you are more likely to consider ordering a low-calorie dish and also more likely to eat it too."

The finding is published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

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