Restaurant Foods Contain More Calories Than Restaurants Claim!

You can’t trust everything you read, especially if it is a nutrition label! In a disheartening study from the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, researchers found that many dietetic frozen food entrees had many more calories than their nutrition labels claimed; on average, the frozen foods, including items from Weight Watchers, Lean Cuisine, Healthy Choice, and South Beach, contained 8% more calories than their boxes suggested. They also found many discrepancies between the number of calories in food items at many popular chain restaurants and the number of calories these restaurants claim their food contains. On average, restaurant foods contained 18% more calories than listed.

So if you can’t trust a printed calorie count, what can you trust? It seems, not much.

According to restaurant representatives, these calorie discrepancies are due to slight variations in portions sizes. For example, a particular restaurant worker may use slightly more cheese in the potato skins than another restaurant employee. They claim that it is impossible for workers across the country to keep menu items completely uniform.

This study brings into question the usefulness of the new “calorie labeling” laws recently passed in many areas, including New York City. What is the purpose of requiring companies to post calorie counts if they are not accurate?

In my opinion, calorie postings are crucial, even if the actual calorie count is not exact. According to the FDA, restaurant and packaged foods are allowed a 20% margin of error. Therefore, a 300 calorie sandwich may contain anywhere from 270 to 330 calories. These “estimates” (which is really what they are) give consumers a good idea of how healthy a food is. Even if you don’t know exactly how many calories an item contains, the postings give you an idea of which choices are healthier than others. And since few Americans adhere to a very strict number of daily calories, a rough estimate is good enough.

Some nutrition experts argue that eating an extra hundred or so calories on a continual basis will lead to weight gain. Of course that statement is true, but I just don’t see a better alternative. Having some idea of how many calories a food contains is better than having no idea at all.

Certain restaurants, however, have crossed the line. Slight variations in portion size do not explain the fact that P.F. Chang’s Sichuan Asparagus had more than DOUBLE the 200 calories the dish is reported to contain. Such egregious discrepancies are unacceptable and restaurants should have to pay significant fines for misleading the public.

Yet not all items went over their stated calorie counts. Researchers found many items that contained fewer calories than reported! Domino’s large thin crust pizza, for example, had one third fewer calories than the listed 180 calories per serving. Now that is a refreshing piece of news, although I guarantee that Domino’s will be posting this new, lower calorie count faster than P.F. Chang’s will change their Sichuan Asparagus calorie count!

Obviously, I would like calorie postings to be as accurate as possible. But when actual people are preparing the meals, there is no way for serving sizes to be 100% standardized. With the current obesity crisis as it is, we need to do everything we can to give consumers as much nutrition information as possible. Until there is a way to exactly calculate how many calories a person is eating, calorie estimates will have to suffice. Let’s just institute strict laws for companies, like P.F. Chang’s, who blatantly misrepresent themselves.

Joanna Dolgoff MD is a pediatrician who specializes in child and adolescent weight management. She is the creator of Dr. Dolgoff’s Weigh.

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