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Can You Trust Calorie Counts on Menus?

Can You Trust Calorie Counts on Menus?


If you want the most accurate picture of your nutritional intake, your best bet is to dine exclusively at fast food restaurants. No, really. A 2011  study, revisited by ABC News earlier this month, compared the nutritional content that chain restaurants self-reported, and the analysis done in their own labs. The results? Many calorie counts at restaurants are off by as many as  420 calories. The most accurate restaurant of the bunch? McDonald’s.

Now, of course, we would never advocate a switch to a diet made up exclusively of Egg McMuffins and french fries — ever! Accurate calorie counting does not a healthy food make. It’s the opposite, in fact. The reason that McDonald’s, and other fast food restaurants, so accurately report their calorie count is because, well, their food is so processed. With everything meticulously prepared before it even ends up in a kitchen, it’s a lot easier to measure quality. The least accurate calorie counts tended to come from meals with more variables, such as, how much oil the cook uses, for instance. Sit-down restaurant meals were more likely to stray from the reported calorie count than fast food restaurants.

Another alarming finding? Over half of “low calorie” dishes  researchers analyzed had more calories than the chain restaurant claimed.

You may not see calories on your menus yet, but be prepared for it to become the norm. Next year, a federal law goes into effect mandating chain restaurants, vending machines and convience stores  provide nutritional information on their menus. Similar laws already exist in a few states, counties and cities across the United States.

So what to make of all of this — especially to those of us who aren’t obsessive calorie counters? Take a closer look at that “healthy” meal at a chain restaurant — if it sounds too good to be true, it just might be.

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Katie Waldeck

Katie is a freelance writer focused on pets, food and women’s issues. A Chicago native and longtime resident of the Pacific Northwest, Katie now lives in Oakland, California.


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6:39AM PST on Jan 23, 2014

Not surprised at this info especially for non fast food restaurants. But a piece of grilled chicken with a side of plain broccoli and a naked sweet potato it's pretty easy to judge the amount of calories you're consuming. I've been doing it for decades :)

7:33AM PST on Feb 15, 2013

Thanks for the info

4:01AM PST on Feb 15, 2013

I ordered the same meal from a resturant 5 days a week for 6 months (they even nemed it after me), and I ordrered it because it was different every day so I don't find this odd.

2:41AM PST on Feb 13, 2013

we have calorie information in fast food chains and on a lot of menus here in the uk. it can be a good way to start looking at how you're eating, but i agree, if you're looking a losing the bulge, make food at home! then you know EXACTLY what is going into it and more likely what the calorie count AND fat content will be!

7:56AM PST on Feb 12, 2013

Fast food is not good for you, the animals, or the environment. What ever happened to "sack lunches?"

8:43PM PST on Feb 5, 2013

Good info, thanks.

3:05PM PST on Feb 3, 2013


4:04AM PST on Feb 3, 2013

thanks good info

10:14AM PST on Feb 1, 2013

Sometimes I don't want to know.

7:08AM PST on Feb 1, 2013

Totally unreliable. These menues are often inaccurate. Best to eat home if you're watching that bulge!!! Thanks.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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