Thursday, July 21, 2011

Use restaurant calorie labeling as a guide, not the only factor when choosing a meal.

A team of scientists recently purchased food from 42 fast food/ chain restaurants (including Olive Garden, Outback, Burger King, and McDonald’s) in Indiana, Arkansas, and Massachusetts and compared the calorie content of the foods purchased with the restaurant’s calorie labeling. The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The major findings were:

  • Only 7% of the 249 foods were within 10 calories of the posted calories
  • Almost 20% of foods actually contained >100 calories more than listed
  • Sit-down restaurants seemed to be the most inaccurate, averaging a 225 calorie discrepancy between the actual and posted calories
  • Boston Market’s dark meat chicken listed as 358 calories, but was actually >500
  • A cranberry pecan chicken salad at Bob Evans listed as 841 calories, but was actually>1,100
  • Fast food chains averaged a 134 calorie discrepancy for each menu item
  • Foods listed with higher calorie contents tended to contain fewer calories, while foods listed with lower calorie contents tended to contain more calories.
  • Overall, restaurant calorie labeling was usually pretty accurate, but large discrepancies did occur for individual food items (as shown above).
The take-home message here is to use the calorie information as a guide… but also use common sense. If something sounds like it’s worse for you than the calories posted, it probably is. Be sure to keep dressings on the side, order the lean way (light dressings on side, no cheese, no mayo, etc.), and choose foods that you know are nutritious (vegetables, fruit, lean meats, whole grains). Restaurant calorie labeling is definitely a positive step... even if some of the numbers are off, oftentimes it can be an eye-opener just to see an estimate of how many calories are jammed into such a small dish!

 L. E. Urban, M. A. McCrory, G. E. Dallal, S. K. Das, E. Saltzman, J. L. Weber, S. B. Roberts. Accuracy of Stated Energy Contents of Restaurant Foods. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, 2011; 306 (3): 287 DOI:,0,3492869.story

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