This Is How Restaurants Get You to Order Less

The great thing about chain restaurants is they're reliable. You always know what to expect when you order. Yet sometimes knowing exactly what you're ordering can have a noticeable effect on your eating habits.

Researchers at Cornell University wanted to track the fallout of a law requiring chain restaurants — any franchise with 20 or more locations — to post calorie counts on menus. The idea is to empower consumers to make informed decisions about food they don't prepare themselves. As one example, not even chefs and cooks knew how many calories a combination grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup contained. (It was a lot.)

Ultimately, the researchers found that in restaurants with calorie counts posted, customers ordered meals with 3 percent fewer calories, usually in the appetizer and entrée. By the study's estimates, that can come out to one pound reduced over a three-year period. That's not bad for a 45-calorie adjustment, especially when one-third of Americans' calories aren't prepared within the home.

Labels may seem like a straightforward part of eating, but psychologically, they can change a lot about how we consume food. It's what makes trying to buy ethically sources meat kind of a morass but demystifies GMO products; it's also what makes you pay more for flashy marketing. The Cornell team found that study participants were 10 percent more likely to support calorie counts on menus once they knew more about it. After all, given the right information, we all have the chance to make the right decisions for ourselves.