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Calorie Count Blog

Restaurant Calorie Listings: Are They Accurate?


By +Carolyn Richardson on Dec 07, 2011 10:00 AM in Healthy Eating

You may have noticed more calorie counts listed when you eat out lately. Whether a sit-down restaurant has its own nutritional information booklet or a drive-thru lists calories next to combo meals, this newly available information is the result of a new federal law. Passed last year as part of health care legislation, restaurant chains with 20 or more outlets are now required to disclose calorie counts on their menus. While some states like California and Oregon have already enacted the measure, the Food and Drug Administration is expected to roll out national guidelines for 2012. The goal is to help consumers to make better informed decisions about what they eat and hopefully impact the obesity epidemic. Researchers have studied the effects of nutritional information on restaurant menus and their results give a mixed view of the usefulness of the information itself and its impact on consumer choice.

Caloric Discrepancy

According to the National Restaurant Association, Americans spend about half of their food budget on eating out, so tracking calories at restaurants is an important aspect of watching what you eat. However, a Tufts University study found about 19% of the 269 restaurant food items they tested had inaccurate calorie information. 50 dishes’ calories were understated by at least 100 calories. Those items happened to be foods that were listed as lower calorie items, such as salads and soups. Specifically, Chipotle’s burrito bowl packed 249 more calories than listed on their website, while Olive Garden’s Chicken and Gnocchi Soup had 246 more. Both chains point to dishes being handmade for the discrepancies, a fact that calls for better quality control in restaurants’ kitchens.

Not on the Nutrition Menu

Items that may be harder to control and are not listed on the nutritional information menu are added oils, butter, sauces, and salad dressings. Adding too much of these could be the sole reason for discrepant calorie counts. Another thing to look out for are entrées with side items. The nutritional values of those will likely only list the main dish, while, a side of bread for example, will be listed separately. More often than not, try to avoid fried, sautéed, marinated, breaded and batter-dipped items.  Also, ask for sauces and salad dressings on the side, and if possible request that oils and butter not be used in preparation. Ask for spinach and other vegetables steamed instead of cooked on the grill where many cooks add oil or butter. Some grilled sandwiches and burritos are also brushed with butter or oil.  

Can I Get Half?

Cheesecake Factory recently introduced an alternative to their traditional menu with entrées under 590 calories and desserts under 490. But not all restaurants need an extra menu for consumers to save on calories. Many offer lunch-sized portions which are markedly smaller than dinner portions. Other restaurants offer medium or large desserts coupled with half or full orders of their offerings. Another way to cut calories at sit down restaurants is to set your own boundaries. Keep bottomless items to a single serving. For instance, according to the Tufts study, an order of chips and salsa from On the Border had more than 1,000 calories than its listed amount.  Multiple baskets of bread will also cost you. Outback Steakhouse doesn’t list the calorie count of their honey wheat bread with the nutritional information on their website, but it runs over 200 calories per serving.   

The Impact of Calorie Listings

Will restaurant menu calorie counts help solve the obesity epidemic? It can’t hurt. While larger-scale studies are needed, smaller studies have found only a moderate change in caloric intake after calorie counts were published. A Stanford University study found Starbucks’ customers in New York dropped 6% of their calories after policies required the information on menus. Margo Wootan, Director of Nutrition Policy for the consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest says this is significant. She tells the Los Angeles Times, "The obesity epidemic is probably explained by about 100 calories per person per day." When added or taken away from the average Americans’ diet, that's about 10 to 15 pounds a year.


Your thoughts...

Does nutrition information on menus affect your decision of what to order? How do you make healthy choices when dining out?



Comments


"The obesity epidemic is probably explained by about 100 calories per person per day."   

This quote is really extending a good concept way beyond its useful point.  The idea that eating 3500 excess kcals would result in a gain of 1 pound is an approximation useful only in giving people an idea of what is involved in gaining or losing weight.  Same thing with BMR calculations that are only an average over the whole population and not even accurate for a single individual over time.

Some people can double their caloric intake for a long period of time without increasing exercise and not gain any weight.  This was demonstrated years ago in the Vermont prison experiment and shown again pretty entertainingly in the BBC documentary 'Why are thin people not fat?' http://goo.gl/wLd4h

Also, why is this article not mentioning how many calories the dishes were supposed to be in the first place.  If I'm eating an 800 kcal entree thinking it should be 700, I would be much less annoyed than if I thought it should be 500 kcal.  

In any case, writing nutrition information in restaurants is a good idea and might slowly push towards more moderate portion sizes.



Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of calorie counting is that it isn't always used in conjunction with micronutrient load. Sure, calories definitely count, but if Joe Schmoe chooses a 200 calorie chocolate chip cookie made with vegetable shortening (trans fats) instead of a 300 calorie chicken salad and assumes he made a 'healthier' choice, then the system failed.



People should just use their judgment when they eat out. What do you expect if you go to Olive Garden or Cheesecake Factory? I can read a menu and figure out without problems what's a good/healthy choice and what's not. And if my chicken with greens turns out to be a family sized portion, I just eat half and ask for a doggie bag to bring home. No calorie count needed - eating healthy is not rocket science.



That's like saying I don't understand why people do know how to change their spark plugs in their car.  Not everyone knows how calories are in food and what food is good and bad.  That is like the president of the sierra club said at a conference. I don't know why we need to cut down the trees in the forest.  If you need a 2X4 just go to the lumber yard and get one.



I recently ate at Olive Garden and I had planned ahead of time by checking out their nutritional menu. When my order came, I KNEW that what was on my plate was 3x the amount of calories as stated. I ended up with THREE meals from that one dish. Just really have to educate yourself on what a true portion is.  You just can't assume that what they are listing is truly accurate.



I think that nutritional information could work well for people who understand what a calorie is. On the other hand what good is it for someone to know that there are 700 calories in a salad if they don't know that 3500 calories equals one pound or that  2000 calories is the average recommended daily intake.

A number is just a number until it is put in context



Original Post by: bamagirl1970

I recently ate at Olive Garden and I had planned ahead of time by checking out their nutritional menu. When my order came, I KNEW that what was on my plate was 3x the amount of calories as stated. I ended up with THREE meals from that one dish. Just really have to educate yourself on what a true portion is.  You just can't assume that what they are listing is truly accurate.


You've nailed it -  that's a great solution!  When it's pasta or something else really calorie-laden (that I love) and I know that I'm probably going to have a challenge only eating part of the meal despite my best intentions going in... I've even gone so far as to discretely request while ordering, that half of the meal be packed into a take out container BEFORE it comes out of the kitchen and is placed in front of me.  I just say that I have some dietary restrictions and would they mind please doing this for me?  I've never had a problem and there is usually still way more than enough on the plate for that meal. Plus I don't have to deal with anyone else at the table saying "why aren't you finishing, is there something wrong with it?" or, seem like the martyr and make anyone else feel guilty for the amount they ate (which happens with women) AND I have lunch or dinner for the next day! :)



Original Post by: neets83

Original Post by: bamagirl1970

I recently ate at Olive Garden and I had planned ahead of time by checking out their nutritional menu. When my order came, I KNEW that what was on my plate was 3x the amount of calories as stated. I ended up with THREE meals from that one dish. Just really have to educate yourself on what a true portion is.  You just can't assume that what they are listing is truly accurate.


You've nailed it -  that's a great solution!  When it's pasta or something else really calorie-laden (that I love) and I know that I'm probably going to have a challenge only eating part of the meal despite my best intentions going in... I've even gone so far as to discretely request while ordering, that half of the meal be packed into a take out container BEFORE it comes out of the kitchen and is placed in front of me.  I just say that I have some dietary restrictions and would they mind please doing this for me?  I've never had a problem and there is usually still way more than enough on the plate for that meal. Plus I don't have to deal with anyone else at the table saying "why aren't you finishing, is there something wrong with it?" or, seem like the martyr and make anyone else feel guilty for the amount they ate (which happens with women) AND I have lunch or dinner for the next day! :)


^That's a great idea!!! Sometimes eating out, I find myself convincing myself "just one more bite"....this would solve that!



With everyone trying to save money nowadays, I don't mind getting larger portions. I simply share the meal with the person I'm eating with, and in many cases, we still have enough to bring home! I've recently noticed some restaurants recommend sharing an entree or dessert with a friend right there on the menu! I think that is a great idea! It gently lets the consumer know that there is definitely enough for 2 people to have a full meal, and it encourages people to save money by splitting the tab as well! My sister and I almost always split a lunch portion at Olive Garden and the waiter is happy to bring the plates out already separated. The only issue with this is that when they separate the portions in the kitchen, they tend to give you more than if you had done it yourself on the table. Just remember that you might have to take some home in a doggie bag still. Eat slowly and listen to what your stomach is telling you. When we do it this way, we are really eating less than 1/4 of the original meal, and we feel full and energetic at the end instead of bloated and sick.



No one has mentioned how this will impact privately owned restaurants - ones with fewer than 20 locations, that aren't required to post calories on their menus.

Will they suffer because customers will prefer going to places with calorie listings? Or will this cause minimal change because most customers aren't considering calories in the first place?

Will privately owned restaurants also comply with the change, for the sake of remaining competitive, or will most diners not allow this change to impact their restaurant choices, eliminating the small business' need to change?

It disappoints me that many of the posted calorie counts are inaccurate, but I'm not surprised. Just another example of Big Business hiding the truth to make more $$.

I'm a big fan of splitting. I usually tell the server we're sharing, and they often divide the food for us, but if they don't, my husband eats twice as fast as me so I eat less, which is fine - he needs twice as much food!

Many times we'll get a "yummy" option (like a burger) and a "healthy" option (a salad) and share them to reduce calories but still feel like we're "indulging" when we go out. Plus, we get to try twice as many options. Smile



I really don't trust ANY labels as my bottom line.  For example, I had a small can of chickpeas the other day that said a serving was 1/2 cup and there were 2.5 servings in the can.  SOOOO, I poured the contents of the can into a measuring cup and found the beans were about 3/4 cup even with the fluid.  So the label must be wrong as there weren't even 2 full servings if a serving is truly 1/2 cup right.

Bottom line, know that there are two major guesses when counting calories... one is what is in what you're eating and the other is what you're burning when you exercise.  In my opinion, it's all a "best guess guideline" and I need to be smart and stay to eating less and exercising more as the balance rule for me. 

Calorie counting just isn't a perfect science and I don't expect the restaurants or the food packaging companies to get it right.  I educated myself on "what" I should eat as healthy choices so I go for the salad over the cookie and then I feel like I'm on the right path.  (16 pounds since 1 October -- so it's working).



so get this.. I called Whole Foods the other day to find out the calorie information about some in-store baked products that didn't have nutrition labels on their packaging becuase they were in-sore baked products. When I called in, they told me that the recipe was secret, and that they weren't required by federal law to calculate the nutrition information because they made small batches in-house. Can you imagine that? Whole Foods, a nationally recognized provider of conscious eating alternatives will not calculate or provide the nutrition information because they make it in-house. How preposterous is that? Is it me or do they have their priorities out of whack on this issue? It was the Portland, Maine Whole Foods.. Don't believe me? Call in and check.



Original Post by: ladyloonglegg

I really don't trust ANY labels as my bottom line.  For example, I had a small can of chickpeas the other day that said a serving was 1/2 cup and there were 2.5 servings in the can.  SOOOO, I poured the contents of the can into a measuring cup and found the beans were about 3/4 cup even with the fluid.  So the label must be wrong as there weren't even 2 full servings if a serving is truly 1/2 cup right.

Bottom line, know that there are two major guesses when counting calories... one is what is in what you're eating and the other is what you're burning when you exercise.  In my opinion, it's all a "best guess guideline" and I need to be smart and stay to eating less and exercising more as the balance rule for me. 

Calorie counting just isn't a perfect science and I don't expect the restaurants or the food packaging companies to get it right.  I educated myself on "what" I should eat as healthy choices so I go for the salad over the cookie and then I feel like I'm on the right path.  (16 pounds since 1 October -- so it's working).


I hear lots of cases of even packaged foods having incorrect serving sizes, and it seems the only way around this is to weigh everything! I don't have one (yet), but a kitchen scale is a good tool to learn how to estimate serving sizes. With higher-calorie foods like nuts, dried fruits, beans, and cooking ingredients like flour and sugar, weighing them will give you the most accurate calorie count and serving size. After a while, it'll be easier to guess by sight how large your portions should be.



I never trust what the menu says because I have a very severe digestive problem that does not allow me to eat much fat.  I always order things to be prepared w/o adding fat.  Lemon on fish when broiled will keep it moist why add butter other than for flavor - we do not need the extra fat it just makes us crave more fat. 

More than worrying about the calories, what about the affects on our health especially those of us that can not eat fat due to health issues.  When prepared they just dump oil and add cream and other things w/o regard to those suffering from their actions.  Unfortunitely, they do not take the time to measure to get more people through in a hurry and it adds flavor, but if they are putting calories on the menu they should be held accountable for their actions. 



I never trust what the menu says because I have a very severe digestive problem that does not allow me to eat much fat.  I always order things to be prepared w/o adding fat.  Lemon on fish when broiled will keep it moist why add butter other than for flavor - we do not need the extra fat it just makes us crave more fat. 

More than worrying about the calories, what about the affects on our health especially those of us that can not eat fat due to health issues.  When prepared they just dump oil and add cream and other things w/o regard to those suffering from their actions.  Unfortunitely, they do not take the time to measure to get more people through in a hurry and it adds flavor, but if they are putting calories on the menu they should be held accountable for their actions. 



I never trust what the menu says because I have a very severe digestive problem that does not allow me to eat much fat.  I always order things to be prepared w/o adding fat.  Lemon on fish when broiled will keep it moist why add butter other than for flavor - we do not need the extra fat it just makes us crave more fat. 

More than worrying about the calories, what about the affects on our health especially those of us that can not eat fat due to health issues.  When prepared they just dump oil and add cream and other things w/o regard to those suffering from their actions.  Unfortunitely, they do not take the time to measure to get more people through in a hurry and it adds flavor, but if they are putting calories on the menu they should be held accountable for their actions. 



I never trust what the menu says because I have a very severe digestive problem that does not allow me to eat much fat.  I always order things to be prepared w/o adding fat.  Lemon on fish when broiled will keep it moist why add butter other than for flavor - we do not need the extra fat it just makes us crave more fat. 

More than worrying about the calories, what about the affects on our health especially those of us that can not eat fat due to health issues.  When prepared they just dump oil and add cream and other things w/o regard to those suffering from their actions.  Unfortunitely, they do not take the time to measure to get more people through in a hurry and it adds flavor, but if they are putting calories on the menu they should be held accountable for their actions. 



I never trust what the menu says because I have a very severe digestive problem that does not allow me to eat much fat.  I always order things to be prepared w/o adding fat.  Lemon on fish when broiled will keep it moist why add butter other than for flavor - we do not need the extra fat it just makes us crave more fat. 

More than worrying about the calories, what about the affects on our health especially those of us that can not eat fat due to health issues.  When prepared they just dump oil and add cream and other things w/o regard to those suffering from their actions.  Unfortunitely, they do not take the time to measure to get more people through in a hurry and it adds flavor, but if they are putting calories on the menu they should be held accountable for their actions. 



I never trust what the menu says because I have a very severe digestive problem that does not allow me to eat much fat.  I always order things to be prepared w/o adding fat.  Lemon on fish when broiled will keep it moist why add butter other than for flavor - we do not need the extra fat it just makes us crave more fat. 

More than worrying about the calories, what about the affects on our health especially those of us that can not eat fat due to health issues.  When prepared they just dump oil and add cream and other things w/o regard to those suffering from their actions.  Unfortunitely, they do not take the time to measure to get more people through in a hurry and it adds flavor, but if they are putting calories on the menu they should be held accountable for their actions. 



I never trust what the menu says because I have a very severe digestive problem that does not allow me to eat much fat.  I always order things to be prepared w/o adding fat.  Lemon on fish when broiled will keep it moist why add butter other than for flavor - we do not need the extra fat it just makes us crave more fat. 

More than worrying about the calories, what about the affects on our health especially those of us that can not eat fat due to health issues.  When prepared they just dump oil and add cream and other things w/o regard to those suffering from their actions.  Unfortunitely, they do not take the time to measure to get more people through in a hurry and it adds flavor, but if they are putting calories on the menu they should be held accountable for their actions. 



I never trust what the menu says because I have a very severe digestive problem that does not allow me to eat much fat.  I always order things to be prepared w/o adding fat.  Lemon on fish when broiled will keep it moist why add butter other than for flavor - we do not need the extra fat it just makes us crave more fat. 

More than worrying about the calories, what about the affects on our health especially those of us that can not eat fat due to health issues.  When prepared they just dump oil and add cream and other things w/o regard to those suffering from their actions.  Unfortunitely, they do not take the time to measure to get more people through in a hurry and it adds flavor, but if they are putting calories on the menu they should be held accountable for their actions. 



Original Post by: soiltek

so get this.. I called Whole Foods the other day to find out the calorie information about some in-store baked products that didn't have nutrition labels on their packaging becuase they were in-sore baked products. When I called in, they told me that the recipe was secret, and that they weren't required by federal law to calculate the nutrition information because they made small batches in-house. Can you imagine that? Whole Foods, a nationally recognized provider of conscious eating alternatives will not calculate or provide the nutrition information because they make it in-house. How preposterous is that? Is it me or do they have their priorities out of whack on this issue? It was the Portland, Maine Whole Foods.. Don't believe me? Call in and check.


I believe you. I've also read an article that Whole Foods is now starting to stock non-organic regular foods(which means some of them are filled with hormones and artificial ingredients and GMO products) to meet their quotas since not everyone is buying their organic foods and not always buying their foods that dont have artificial ingredients. Theyre trying to keep their heads above water so not to go bankrupt.

But I can see how your situation can happen. I do think that they should have handled your call in a much better fashion simply to tell you something ot the effect that they decided to make a small batch of an item as a market ploy or to get people interested and didnt take the calorie counting into consideration at the time. That would have been a much better way to keep a customer coming back.

However not every worker is scrupulous.



I love having the nutrition information available.  It lets me make informed decisions and that makes me feel more in control of what I eat.



I don't take the menu counts as absolute truth, but I tend to take the "it averages out" view. Sometime it's more, sometimes it's less over time it averages out.  I tend to bring my lunch to work, and eat at home but the times I do eat out....having that nutrition info available when I do eat out makes choosing way easier than having to guess.



Original Post by: blueblooded10003

People should just use their judgment when they eat out. What do you expect if you go to Olive Garden or Cheesecake Factory? I can read a menu and figure out without problems what's a good/healthy choice and what's not. And if my chicken with greens turns out to be a family sized portion, I just eat half and ask for a doggie bag to bring home. No calorie count needed - eating healthy is not rocket science.


This.

Also, if I'm seeing calorie values for the first time and I choose a lower calorie item instead of a higher calorie item, then the calorie values have already made an impact.  That the values may be off a little, that is not really an issue.

The take away for us here on Calorie Count is that the menu calories are not always accurate, and if they are inaccurate, the mistake is probably higher calories not less.

Good Luck!



Comment Removed

Wow... Americans spend half their food budget on restaurants?  Crazy.  My budget allows for 2-3 times a month... and hubby and me sometimes split an entree (and he'll get an appetizer or soup to top up) - it saves $, calories, and we still get to enjoy date night!



same thing with my university's dining hall menus... some of the calorie and sodium counts are frankly ridiculous. Like today they had a bisque listed as 51 calories and 59mg sodium for 6oz, when it was clearly very rich and salty.

so I take ONLY raw or steamed vegetables, fruits, plain beans, whole wheat bread, veggie burgers, coffee and soymilk from the dining hall. very occasionally I'll take some prepared food, but I generally regret it, like with the bisque.



One thing that this article does not mention is serving size.  Some restaurants have 2-3 servings on one plate.  So you need to look closely.  I know they do that at Claim Jumper.  It will say something like 1300 calories per serving then say 2 servings.  So that dish actually has 2600 calories!  And this is not just on appetizers, It is also with entrees and deserts.  So really on a dish like that you should only be eating 1/4 of the plate or less!

Whether the calorie count is totally accurate or not, it does give you a clue to how much extra fat or sugar is in a dish.  Sometimes the calorie count is around what I would expect, and sometimes it is way higher.  Even on so called "healthy" meals.  If the calorie count is way off from what I expected, I know that there is something in there that shouldn't be and I avoid that dish.  (or even the whole restaurant)  

The only way to be totally sure of what goes into your food is to make it yourself from scratch.   

 



This concerns me for diabetics that have to count carbs for their meals (specifically type I DM- Type II can b cured by proper diet/exercise). If the posting of cals is off by 200-300 this could send a diabetic through the roof with their blood glucose level if underestimating, which increases the risk for them becoming hyperglycemic. Just a thought.


Seeing the calories and nutrition always helps me choose what to get at a restaurant. If I know I'm going to eat out I look at the menu and nutrition online before I go. That way I know what to expect. And I also do this in order to find the gluten free options because I have to eat gluten free. Unfortunately the gluten free options are almost never the lowest calorie options. But I'm still doing my best. at least I hardly ever eat at restaurants anymore since there are not many gluten free options for me.



Original Post by: rikosmom

Wow... Americans spend half their food budget on restaurants?  Crazy.  My budget allows for 2-3 times a month... and hubby and me sometimes split an entree (and he'll get an appetizer or soup to top up) - it saves $, calories, and we still get to enjoy date night!


not all americans.  i go out to eat maybe, maybe once a month.



tawyztlv: thanks for the article! Very interesting research. The idea that cal in & out is the only control of weight is way to simplified. If I may use myself as an example. I went on a crash diet in high school and have been eating 800-900 cals a day since then (lets say its been about 20 years now). Even so, I have slowly been gaining weight and I am at 33% bodyfat. I tried to lower the cals more (not gonna happen) and increased the intensity of my workouts (I started doing HITT training and Crossfitting). Nothing. I am working with a dietitian and she has gotten my cals up to 1500-1600 a day. I have not gained anything. So eat less workout more isn't always the answer. I have seen nutritionists state that some people have a set point their bodies want to be at, but had not seen the actual research conducted. 

 



Original Post by: kcaufield

tawyztlv: thanks for the article! Very interesting research. The idea that cal in & out is the only control of weight is way to simplified. If I may use myself as an example. I went on a crash diet in high school and have been eating 800-900 cals a day since then (lets say its been about 20 years now). Even so, I have slowly been gaining weight and I am at 33% bodyfat. I tried to lower the cals more (not gonna happen) and increased the intensity of my workouts (I started doing HITT training and Crossfitting). Nothing. I am working with a dietitian and she has gotten my cals up to 1500-1600 a day. I have not gained anything. So eat less workout more isn't always the answer. I have seen nutritionists state that some people have a set point their bodies want to be at, but had not seen the actual research conducted. 

 


Meaninig that some americans are then spending way over that eating out considering thats an average....



My key is to go to every restaurant with a plan of attack. They may be forced to give you healthy choices but they make their money by getting you to have unhealthy drinks, sides and desserts. I get multiple vegetables and large salads. If they want your business, they'll accommodate you.


I recognize this article for what it is, a simple discussion on calorie count accuracy in restaurants.  I am happy that this trend is happening at all, although I hope there will be more "fact checkers" in the future.  For those giving advice about healthy eating, ways to decrease food intake etc. I am in agreement, however when an average person is looking at a menu he/she can now make a conscious choice between entrees.  Our country has an obesity epidemic!  People need all the tools they can get in order to lose weight, learn about food, exercise etc.  Sometimes, we have to meet people at the level they are at.  I do agree with the person who commented on Whole Foods ability to refrain from putting calorie counts on their deli  products.  I won't purchase anything there because of that reason.



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