When we don't cook the meal ourselves, we don't see what goes into them and we underestimate the caloric content

By Harley Pasternak
June 05, 2013 01:40 PM
Courtesy Harley Pasternak

How many calories are in these dishes? (The answers are at the end of the article.)

• Panera Bread: Sierra Turkey sandwich
• Cheesecake Factory: Chicken costoletta
• Cheesecake Factory: Bistro shrimp pasta
• Olive Garden: Chicken and shrimp carbonara
• Chili’s: Chili Cheese Fries
• Dunkin Donuts: Coffee Coolata

Last week my wife Jessica and I went out for dinner to a well know national chain restaurant. Jess had a salad with grilled chicken and I had a small vegetable soup and a shrimp stir fry. Feeling good about our orders, we decided to peruse the nutritional info on the menu as we waited for our meals to arrive.

We were flabbergasted when we realized we were about to eat two and a half times the calories we had expected to eat. My “healthy” stir-fry had nearly 1,100 calories and my Jess’s “light” salad was a whopping 900 calories! Needless to say, we, like many Americans, grossly underestimated the caloric value of our meals.

Did you know that Americans eat out an average of four to five times a week?

When we eat away from our home, we seem to be much more lax about our nutritional expectations and restrictions. When we don’t cook the meal ourselves, and therefore, don’t see what goes into them, we tend to underestimate the caloric content of our meals.

Researchers found that American adults underestimated the calories in fast-food meals by 20%; parents of school-age children by 23%; and teenagers by a whopping 34%.

In the past 8 years, several U.S. states and cities have passed laws and regulations requiring chain restaurants to print nutrition information (or calorie count, at minimum) in an effort to better inform restaurant-goers about what exactly they’re eating. The U.S. Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 includes a provision that will require all chain restaurants with 20 or more locations to print calorie content on their menus. Chain restaurants are singled out as it makes more financial and practical sense for several locations to implement this practice if they share a menu and and have a prescribed method of meal preparation, and also because they hold the largest share of the U.S. restaurant market.

Most obviously this affects fast food chains like McDonalds and Taco Bell, and a recent study published in May’s British Medical Journal indicates that fast-food diners are perhaps the most in need of nutritional education.

What does this mean? It means that most of us can’t rely on our best guesses.

Even I can get surprised by calorie counts on some menus – and I’m a professional nutritionist! We, as consumers, should demand to be informed.

Publishing nutrition information could even have positive impacts beyond the consumer’s education. A recent study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests that nutrition labeling on menus may even lead restaurants to offer healthier options. The study found that 18 months after being required to post nutrition information on their menus, restaurants in King County, Wash., were offering new, healthier items with fewer calories. Whether this change was a result of consumer demand for healthier items or the owner’s surprise and dissatisfaction with their high-calorie options, it’s a welcome one.

The question is: Will better informed consumers equate to healthier consumers? Not necessarily. Studies indicate that only one in six people who look at calorie content on menus end up opting for a healthier choice.

In any event, I do believe understanding nutritional profiles is a key component to eating well. Information is power and we, as consumers, deserve to have all the facts before we dig into a thousand calorie salad, should we choose to proceed.

Calorie Count Answers:

• Panera Bread: Sierra Turkey sandwich = 920 calories
• Cheesecake Factory: Chicken costoletta = 2610 calories
• Cheesecake Factory: Bistro shrimp pasta = 3,120 calories
• Olive Garden: Chicken and shrimp carbonara = 1,440 calories
• Chili’s: Chili Cheese Fries = 2,000 calories
• Dunkin Donuts: Coffee Coolata = 800 calories with cream!

Have you ever been surprised by the calorie count on a menu? Tweet me @harleypasternak!

Check back every Wednesday for more insider tips on Hollywood’s hottest bodies – and learn how to get one yourself! Plus: follow Harley on Twitter at @harleypasternak.

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