WEDNESDAY, Oct. 8, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Eating out might not be as bad for your waistline as you might think.
New research shows that newer menu selections at many large chain restaurants in the United States now average 12 percent fewer calories than traditional dishes.
This switch could have a major impact on the nation's obesity epidemic, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health researchers said.
The findings are from an analysis of menu selections at 66 of the 100 largest U.S. restaurant chains in 2012 and 2013. The newer, lower-calorie options were found in the main course, beverages and children's sections of menus. On average, they contain an average of 60 fewer calories than other menu choices.
The appearance of lower-calorie menu items may be in anticipation of expected federal government rules requiring large chain restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus, according to the study published in the October issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Research shows that on a typical day, 33 percent of children, 41 percent of teens and 36 percent of adults eat at fast-food restaurants, and consume an average of 191, 404 and 315 calories, respectively.
"If the average number of calories consumed at each visit was reduced by approximately 60 calories -- the average decline we observed in newly introduced menus in our study -- the impact on obesity could be significant," study author Sara Bleich, an associate professor in the department of health policy and management at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, said in a Hopkins news release.
"You can't prohibit people from eating fast food, but offering consumers lower-calorie options at chain restaurants may help reduce caloric intake without asking the individual to change their behavior -- a very difficult thing to do," she said.
"Given that the federal menu-labeling provisions outlined in the 2010 Affordable Care Act are not yet in effect, this voluntary action by large chain restaurants to offer lower-calorie menu options may indicate a trend toward increased transparency of nutritional information, which could have a significant impact on obesity and the public's health," Bleich concluded.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics offers tips for eating out.