Here’s some good news: Eat in a restaurant that prints the calorie counts of its offerings and you’ll probably eat a meal with fewer calories.

According to a new research review, diners choose meals that have between 8 and 12 percent fewer calories when the menus include information about their calorie counts.

The research, which relied on data pooled from earlier studies, was published this week by the independent Cochrane Collaboration. The team of nine scientists from universities across the U.K discerned a clear pattern that suggests labeling menus with calorie information is a worthwhile intervention for public health.

More on Watching Calories

“With obesity, there is no one thing that’s going to crack it,” says Theresa Marteau, Ph.D., director of the Behaviour and Health Research Unit at the University of Cambridge, who co-authored the new study. “But this is one of a number of measures that will be needed in order to reduce the [calorie] consumption of people in the U.S. and the U.K.”

Calorie information on menus has become more common in restaurants across the U.S., and all chain restaurants (as well as other chain food retailers, such as the takeout sections of major grocery stores) will need to clearly show calorie information on their menus by May 7, according to new regulations mandated by the Food and Drug Administration.

“Congress stood up for public health when it required the FDA to set rules for calorie counts on menus. After years of delay, consumers finally will have this important information by May at all major chain food retailers,” says William Wallace, senior policy analyst for Consumers Union, the advocacy division of Consumer Reports. “The rules are strong but flexible, and we urge all companies to do right by consumers and display calorie counts to help them make healthy choices when eating out.”

“Calories are not the only thing that matters,” says Maxine Siegel, R.D., head of the Consumer Reports food testing lab. “But consumers have a right to know what they are eating, and this is a good start.”

Here’s how you can use calorie information on menus to help you plan a healthier meal.

Eating Out the Healthy Way

  • Know your limits. Many people don’t know exactly how many calories they are supposed to eat in a day, Siegel says. The Dietary Guidelines suggest about 2,400 calories per day for moderately active men, and about 2,000 calories per day for moderately active women. But the guidelines vary depending on your age, your activity level, and other factors. (See how many calories you need.)
  • Plan ahead. Break down your recommended daily calories to estimate how many calories should be in a typical meal. If your daily intake is not supposed to exceed 2,000 calories, for example, you should be wary of any one meal on a menu that has more than 650 calories, says Ellen Klosz, a Consumer Reports nutritionist. (Daily snacks will probably account for no more than 200 to 300 calories.)
  • Consider nutrition, not just calories. Watch out for fried foods, avoid heavy sauces, get plenty of vegetables, and choose whole grains when available, Klosz and Siegel say. Remember that building a healthy plate is about more than calories, and choose whole foods—an apple, not an apple pie pocket—as much as possible.
  • Make use of additional nutritional information. According to the FDA, when calorie counts on chain restaurant menus go into effect in May, restaurants will also have to make more detailed nutrition information available on site—in booklets, kiosks, posters, or counter cards. Use that info to help you keep tabs on not just calories but also things like sodium and added sugars.
  • Think outside the restaurant. Having calories listed so widely will raise awareness in general, Siegel says. Once you know roughly the number of calories in a burger or an apple, for example, you can use that information to help you prepare healthier meals and more sensible portions at home, too.