So, you think it’s a good idea that a lot of restaurants now publish calorie counts on their menus? Maybe it is, but the idea only has value as long as it is being executed soundly. In a shocking discovery, a group at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center at Tufts University has found that restaurants have been significantly misreporting the calorie content of their meals.
If you thought that they would be more careful, with their reputations at stake, it is time you think again. It seems that restaurants have been counting on people to take their word, and at least with this Tufts University study, that strategy has backfired.
The group headed by Susan Roberts, who is a laboratory director at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center at Tufts University, tested 269 different food items, chosen from 42 restaurant chains at Little Rock, Boston and Indianapolis. The targeted restaurants included sit-ins and fast food chains, and the idea was to find out if there was any discrepancy between what the restaurants managers say about their menu calories and what their chefs put on your plate.
On the whole, the study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that the overall calorie reporting was off the mark by less than 10%, which is an acceptable range. However, scratch the surface and the shocks begin to come through. In 19% of the tested food items, what the restaurants reported was at an average 100 calories less than what was actually on the plate. And, hold your breath, these food items were all chosen from the lowest-calorie meals at sit-in restaurants. In other words, the calories in meals specifically targeted at people out to lose weight are being grossly under-reported by restaurants.
Considering that one-third of the average American’s daily food consumption comes from restaurants and fast food chains, a 100 ‘unknown’ calories in a restaurant meal can do a lot of damage. With just that much excess everyday, one can put on up to 7 kg a year. And this at a time when obesity is already an epidemic in the country.
Susan Roberts did not mince any words, and called this ‘disgusting’, clearly suggesting that restaurants were deliberately under-reporting their calories and misleading dieters. One could argue that it is impossible for a restaurants to guarantee an exact number of calories in every freshly prepared meal. That is true: restaurant menus generally report an average amount, and certain variation is to be expected. However, the total calories in the served meal should still be within 10% of the stated amount,. An average difference of 100 calories, and that too in one direction, clearly points to deliberate policy.
It may surprise many people that fast food chains, who are primarily held guilty for causing obesity, were the most reliable with their calorie reporting. This is primarily because there is minimal variation in portion sizes in each meal that is served. In a McDonald’s burger, for example, the size of the patty, the amount of veggies and sauces and the size of the buns are all pre-determined and produced to exact measure. The similar logic holds for other fast food chains as well.
All this may leave you wondering how to control your weight loss efforts. According to diet experts, the best solution is to rely less on restaurant food and more on freshly prepared, home cooked meals. It may take more time and effort, but the investment will justify itself before long!
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