Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving

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Do you know how many calories are in that fast food meal?


Results of a study published in the BMJ last week indicate that many consumers underestimate the number of calories they’re consuming when they eat at fast food restaurants.

Researchers approached customers exiting fast food restaurants and asked them what they’d eaten and how many calories they thought that they had consumed. They then determined the actual number of calories consumed by accessing the nutrition information posted on the company websites (more about this to follow). It was found that, “At least two-thirds of all participants underestimated the calorie content of their meals, with about a quarter underestimating the calorie content by at least 500 calories.” The average caloric estimation was under the actual caloric content by about 175 calories.

175 calories may not sound like many but that can add-up pretty quickly. Especially considering that many people eat fast food on a regular basis. Unfortunately, the best statistic I could find was from the 2004 Overview of Canadians’ Eating Habits¬†which indicated that on the day before the interview 1/4 of all respondents had consumed something purchased at ¬†fast food restaurant.

I would also argue that these caloric estimations may be even less accurate than they appear. Nutrition information posted on restaurant websites is notoriously inaccurate. While it tends to be even worse for non-fast food outlets as chefs and cooks may be more inclined to take liberties and portions are less controlled, it’s still often the case that the calories posted for fast food items are optimistic. They’re going to use the best case scenario and try to portray their food in the best light possible.

The authors conclude that including caloric information on menus might help to improve consumer estimation of calories. Beyond this, I think that this study should serve as a reminder that you’re never in control of your food unless you’re preparing it yourself. Always assume that you’re eating more calories than you think that you are when you eat out and try to prepare as many of your meals as you can at home.


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The problem with adding calorie counts to menus

I know that I’m a little late to the game due to March being taken over by Nutrition Month. I still wanted to weigh in on the restaurant menu labelling debate as I think an important point is being missed here. On one side of the debate are those who state that consumers should be given the information on calories (and possibly other common nutrients of concern such as fat, sodium, and sugar) at the point of purchase. On the other side of the debate are those who cite studies showing that such calorie labelling doesn’t actually make an impact on customers purchasing decisions. I’m not completely sure which side of this debate I’m on. Part of me (the part that fancies myself to be a savvy consumer) likes the idea of having as much information as possible. Another part of me just wants to enjoy my occasional meal out without the guilt of knowing that it contains as many calories as I need in an entire day. However, many people eat out on a regular basis, not just occasionally, and they should be made aware of the calories in the food their eating.

My main concern with the calorie labelling is that it’s often inaccurate but many people do not realise this and take it as gospel. Many calorie counts are based on computer generated reports which are not as accurate as actually using a bomb calorimeter to determine the calories in a food. Even if bomb calorimeters are used, cooking is not an exact science and different amounts of ingredients used in a recipe each time it’s prepared may cause the calorie count to vary fairly significantly. I think that we need to relearn to pay attention to our bodies and pay less attention to numbers. Use calorie and nutrition labels to guide your choices but don’t be completely reliant on them. They are not to be trusted. Learn to recognise when you’re full (and not full to the point of discomfort, full to the point of satisfaction) and pay attention to how your body feels to gauge if you should be eating less or more. Also, cook meals at home more often and treat eating out as a treat.