A recent Duke study found that listing nutritional information in a mobile format could help encourage healthy eating.

Although many restaurants list calorie information on their venues, the study suggests that putting such information on websites and mobile apps may be more successful in preventing overeating. The study, funded by the Duke Obesity Prevention Program, surveyed websites of the top 100 U.S. chain restaurants to determine the availability of calorie information on each site. Although 82 percent of the restaurants provided calorie information online, only 25 percent of these websites were available in a mobile format, which may limit consumers from accessing nutritional information when they're on the go.

“It’s important for people trying to lose weight to evaluate calories before they enter restaurant in the first place,” said lead author Gary Bennett, director of undergraduate studies at the Duke Global Health Institute.

When people have already entered a store, calorie information might not be a deterrent to eating unhealthy foods, Bennett said. Creating a stronger mobile presence could therefore lead to healthier dieting.

Although calorie information is more widely available on the Internet, increasing access to calorie information via mobile devices could also aid economically disadvantaged populations who are more likely to access the internet through their mobile devices, Bennett said, who explained that smartphone data plans are less expensive than broadband and sometimes a preferred option for these families.

Formatting calorie information for mobile websites could potentially benefit the general population as well.

“We suspect that for many consumers they might be interested in checking the caloric information when they are outside of their house and they are considering restaurants to choose from,” Bennett added.

Inconsistencies in nutritional presentation across menus can also impact consumer behavior.

Restaurants themselves determine which menu options are deemed healthy, which does not take into consideration the varying health needs of different people. For example, an overweight but otherwise healthy person would consider a low-calorie meal healthy, but consumers with additional health concerns may not fit this mentality, said Elisabetta Politi, nutrition director at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center.

"When it's really left up to the industry to make decisions about what foods are healthful, the variability makes it difficult for consumers to make purchasing decisions," Bennett said.

Additionally, the study found that less than half of the surveyed companies presented a separate section identifying healthier menu options.

“There are so many different parameters to judge healthy options,” Politi wrote in a Tuesday email. “Are you overweight but healthy and you need to lose weight? Calories are most important. Do you have diabetes? Carbohydrate content of the food is as important as calorie information.”

Politi said a healthy option at any chain would be a meal under 600 calories with less than six grams of fat, 800mg of sodium and 45-60 grams of carbohydrates.

Implementing a universal format to compare foods in these restaurant chains could definitely help consumers make more informed and health decisions, said co-author Dori Steinberg, a postdoctorial associate at the Duke Global Health institute.

“More and more Americans are eating outside of the home, so working with restaurants to figure out how we can help consumers choose healthier options is really important,” Steinberg said. “Potentially offering them that information on mobile websites and on websites before they get to the restaurant could be really helpful for planning purposes.”

 

Correction: The co-author of the study is named Dori Steinberg, not Doryi Steinberg. The Chronicle regrests the error.