Are Fast Food Calorie Counts On Menus Helping?

The HealthGal Health Guide
  • As a nutritionist, I strongly believe that information is power. If you are someone who has decided to improve your health, or lose weight, or both, then you need solid and trustworthy information. How can you possibly be expected to make food choice decisions without knowing:

    • Portion size
    • Calories per portion size
    • Ingredients
    • Breakdown of fat, protein and carbohydrate calories
    • Amount of salt
    • Amount of added refined sugar
    • Additives

    Certainly those are a lot of parameters to evaluate. So at minimum, if you know how many calories are in the portion you are eating, you can have a sense of your total calories per day, a good starting point when you want to lose weight (and improve your health profile). Nationwide, fast food chains and other restaurants that have a minimum of 19 single standing locations, are now required to post the calories for their food offerings. Experts assumed that based on studies and even common sense, an informed consumer would be able to then decide which choices best fit their diet goals. But there's a bit of a problem.

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    When you walk in to a typical fast food restaurant, you'll see a range of calories posted, rather than calories/serving size and a specific recommendation for serving size. So if you look up at a food menu board posted on the wall as you are ordering for example a bucket of fried chicken, you might typically see 3240-10,000 calories. So what's the single portion size? How many calories are in a reasonably sized single portion? And since the calorie count posted includes all "the extra side dishes" - what are the calorie counts for each individual component, and again, what's a reasonable single portion size? This is a case of the consumer getting some information, but in the case of the bcket of fried chicken, that information may be really confusing and not very helpful (though if I saw those numbers I would run the other way!!).


    A recent study out of Columbia University School of Nursing supports this current disappointing finding. Current calorie count postings and standards leave the average consumer unable to utilize the information in a meaningful way. And other studies have suggested that some calorie count postings are inaccurate, in some cases by as much as several hundred calories. Also if you "add condiments, cheese and other high calorie items" to your meal, you may be adding calories without actually tabulating those additional calories to the posted numbers on the menu boards. One suggestion by the nurses who conducted the study was to modify how calorie counts are posted, by using "slashes" to identify each component of the meal. So for example, if you have a turkey sandwich with mayo, tomato and grilled vegetables the calories should cover the bread and turkey/mayo/tomato/grilled vegetables and look like:310/100/25/55


    You would now know how many calories each "component of the sandwich" contains. That's actually a pretty healthy choice, but imagine how helpful this information would be if you were having scrambled eggs made with butter, 2 slices of toast, bacon, and sausages, in which case the dish clocks in at: 200/220/275/300


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    At least now you know how many calories each ingredient is costing you, so maybe you will decide to just have the eggs and bacon, or the eggs, sans butter and toast, or the eggs and sausages and one piece of toast. That is a big first step in mindful eating, awareness of calories, calorie reduction and picking and choosing, a hugely important concept in food selection when it comes to weight loss and better lifestyle.


    I believe better food labeling and calorie clarity is coming, but it will take time. In the meantime, the next time you refer to those menu calorie postings, try to do a bit more detective work so you make the best selections for the most reasonable calorie count.

Published On: February 24, 2012