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Can You Trust the Calories Listed by Restaurants?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Balancing energy intake with energy expenditure is a key to successful weight management. Nutrition tools like databases, trackers, and fact labels can help. However, the help they provide is limited by the accuracy of the information each tool includes.

The same is true with calorie information on restaurant menus. The nutrition calculations are derived from a variety of sources. Restaurants frequently use laboratory testing, published resource information, and food supplier information to help them calculate estimated nutrition information. If the source information is not accurate, the inaccuracy will be handed down and perhaps multiplied. Tufts University researchers tested meals from several familiar chain restaurants. The tested meals were eighteen percent higher in calories on average than the listed menu information. The scariest part of their findings to me was the wide range of variation between actual calorie content and reported content. Some meals were 36 percent lower than the restaurant calculation. For most of us, that is an error in our favor that doesn't bother us too much. Others were 200 percent higher than the reported calorie information. That variation can make a large impact that is more unsettling.

Some people have ordered their lifestyle so that eating away from home isn't something they do often. Others of us eat away from home from time to time for a variety of reasons. When we do, we rely on helpful recommendations to plan before we go in order to successfully navigate the menu for the healthiest choices. We also try to apply many of the healthy eating habits we have learned as well. Unfortunately, we also trust in the nutrition information provided for the restaurant we are visiting. Here are some things to consider when reviewing and relying on menu nutrition information while dining away from home.

  • It is important to remember the nutrition information provided is not automatically representative of the meal you are served. The calculation for your selection is an estimate based on a standardized recipe tested in a lab, evaluated using industry standard software or published resources. The numbers are subject to a variety of federal rounding and regulation rules that may also alter the results reported. Remembering that the number provided is an estimate and not an exact total can help you fit the meal into your daily calorie and nutrition range. It is important not to be so caught up in the numbers that you lose sight of other aspects of the dining experience and intuitive eating cues.
  • Issues with portion control do not just happen at home. When a cook or chef plates your meal, their ability to control your portion will factor in to the total calories of your meal. For example, an institutional number eight scoop provides a one half cup serving. That is only if the scoop contents were level. The scoop contents can easily become rounded and vary from person to person especially in a frantic kitchen. Increased portion sizes mean increased overall calorie contributions. Customized entrée items such as sandwiches or wraps also increase the opportunity for preparation technique and portion errors. Learning how to recognize appropriate portion sizes can enhance your ability to manage the intake of the meal provided. If you notice there is too much mayo or salad dressing or a portion that is too large, make the necessary adjustments to your serving. Take the rest home to create a snack or meal addition.
  • In an attempt to be environmentally supportive, some restaurants are using local food sources especially fresh produce. It is important to remember that nutritional information for produce are typically based on overall averages. Totals naturally include a variation related to growing season and regional farming practices. Since it is important to include fruits and vegetables into your diet each day, this is one calorie count variation you should not worry a great deal about. Vegetables with their low calorie and high nutrition content would be the best cause of having a higher calorie intake than the menu reported.
If your lifestyle choices do not include eating away from home, these concerns will not influence your weight management success. For those of us that enjoy eating away from home or who have not yet mastered meal management strategies, these are things that must be kept in mind when selecting food away from home.

The Bottom Line

More and more restaurants have calorie and nutrition information printed on menus and display boards. It is important to remember there are a variety of factors that go in to creating the displayed calculations. Using the numbers provided as an estimate instead of an exact number will help you stay on track while not being overly concerned by potential hidden errors. Focusing on and over analyzing the menu nutrition information can cause you to lose sight of the bigger picture. Estimating your needs and balancing your intake is more of an art than a science. Remembering this truth while eating within your recommended calorie range and listening to your body will allow you to stay on track with your weight goals. (Need more help eating right on the go? Check out our comprehensive Dining Out Guide and 10 diet friendly restaurants.)

Are you surprised to learn the number on the menu or display board at your favorite restaurant may not be accurate? If you eat out, does this knowledge change anything for you in your attempt to maintain your weight goals?

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I don't eat out often, but I am still amazed at how many calories some restaurant dishes can contain. You'd think that 1,000+ would be out of the ordinary. No, today a meal with that many calories is the norm.

I think what surprizes me is how many calories some "healthy" sounding meals can have. You think you're making a good choice choosing fish or salad. Then you get home key in the numbers and the next thing you know, that healthy salad was over 1,000 calories. YIKES!!

Considering how big portions are these days, the calorie count doesn't shock me anymore. Does knowing the calories effect my decisions ? Yes, I might opt for something lower calorie if the calorie listing of the something I want is outrageous.

Actually I'm surprised that the average came out as close as it did. We have a restaurant and every time I see a comment from someone saying all restaurants should provide nutrition information, I think "how?" There are so many variables on what a customer wants in their order, and ingredients can be different from supplier to supplier. As a business person I wouldn't feel comfortable trying to provide calorie counts. As a consumer, I've cut way back on eating out, and watch my portions when I do. Almost any restaurant portion is enough for two meals. Report
I always expect that the calorie count is going to be higher. For the healthiest eating, eat at home. The calorie count may still be inaccurate, but you'll know exactly what went into your meal. Report
I expect variation in my meals out as well. This is why when I choose "lower calorie options" at places that actually list their nutrition information... I tend to choose things like salads, veggie stir-frys, that kind of thing, with the sauce on the sides. That way, I have more control over the higher calorie portion of the meal with the cook having control over the rest. I tend to eat mostly vegetarian when I eat out, so that if something is higher calorie than I expected, I at least get another serving or three of my veggies for the day. Plus, when I dine out and eat vegetarian, I generally get an idea or two of something new to do at home with veggies! Report
I don't think it's any different than eating at home. There will always be variables. Ultimately, I'm responsible for what I put in my mouth. Report
I generally expect the calorie counts to be off because even if it is a chain that weighs each portion and freezes individually, there is room for error. The local mom and pop restaurants are likely using something like spark's calorie counter to come up with an idea of what their dishes nutritional value is. I try to make smarter choices based on the menu item description and ask tons of questions. I also use the information provided by the restaurant as a general idea of what I might be consuming and try to eat low in my calorie range the rest of the day to compensate for any undisclosed calories, fat, sodium, etc. Report
I'm not really surprised. I eat out a lot less than I used to, but when I do, I enjoy the experience and try to make smart choices. Report
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