You know the drill, you go out to eat and before you order, you check out all the lighter options on the menu, choosing one that won’t break the calorie bank. However, new research suggests that the “light” menu options may not be as low-cal as restaurants claim.
Tufts University researchers analyzed the calories of 39 chain-restaurant foods and frozen dinners. Their results reaffirm other similar studies that show calorie counts on restaurant meals are often underestimated. Some menu items pack in twice as many calories as what's stated!
Among the restaurant menu analyses (Domino’s, Denny’s, P.F. Chang’s, Ruby Tuesday, Taco Bell, etc.), the calorie counts for items were, on average, 18% higher than what was stated on the menu. But some had much larger differences. For example, a P.F. Chang’s Sichuan-Style Asparagus was supposed to have 260 calories but came in at 558 calories, a 115% difference.
For the frozen diet dinners, calories averaged 8% more than what the package indicated. A Lean Cuisine Shrimp & Angel Hair Pasta dinner was supposed to have 250 calories but had 319, or 28% more than what the label stated.
The other diet red flag noted by the researchers was that the dishes often included standard sides not included in the total calorie count for the dish. The average calories for the side dishes was 471, often more than the main course.
“This calorie variation can be detrimental for dieters,” says Dallas-based registered dietitian Jennifer Neily. “If someone is trying to adhere to a 1,400-calorie diet by reading labels, yet packages can have up to a 20% variation, the numbers just aren’t going to add up. They may wonder why they’re not losing weight, and this could be one of the reasons.”
Though the discrepancies were within acceptable limits based on federal regulations, and some items had fewer calories than reported, the caloric differences could negatively affect a person's weight-loss efforts. “When [restaurant] portions are 2–3 times what people need, and calories are more than restaurants report, it really isn't anyone's fault if they have gained weight,” according to lead investigator Susan B. Roberts, PhD, the director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at Tufts University, and author of The "i" Diet.
The bottom line: Calorie-counting is not an exact science. Eat out less and stick with healthy, minimally processed meals as much as possible. Try monitoring your hunger and fullness rather than relying on unreliable nutrition labels.