Winter 2019

The Restaurant Menu Trap

There’s a good chance many of those posted calorie counts are wrong.

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With 60 percent of Americans eating dinner out at least once a week, restaurant meals have a supersized impact on the national waistline. Thanks to a mandate of the Affordable Care Act, restaurants with more than twenty locations are now required to post calorie counts. And while this may sound like a boon to those watching their weight, research from the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) and the Friedman School offers a caveat: There’s a good chance many of those posted calorie counts are wrong.

Susan Roberts, director of the HNRCA’s Energy Metabolism Laboratory, and her colleagues have been calling attention to this problem for years. In a 2011 study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the researchers found that 19 percent of restaurant foods differed from the advertised calorie counts by more than one hundred calories, with lower-calorie foods tending to be the worst offenders. Similarly, a 2010 study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association examined the calorie content of items from sit-down chain restaurants, fast-food outlets, and frozen meals. On average, those foods had 18 percent more calories than listed.

While posting calorie information is a good start, Roberts said, what she’d really like to see is restaurants offering smaller, healthier portion sizes. In one study, she found that portion sizes at 92 percent of restaurants exceeded the recommended calories for a single meal—in some cases, the entrée alone had more calories than the allowance for an entire day. (And it’s not just in the United States. Roberts and colleagues recently published a study in the journal BMJ that examined restaurant meals in five countries: Brazil, China, Finland, Ghana, and India. Only the average calorie count in China, at 719, was lower than the U.S. average of 1,088.)

Restaurantgoers tend to want large portions for their money. But imagine, Roberts said, “if we offered a healthy portion, for a proportionally reduced price?” Suddenly, choosing a six-hundred-calorie version of a meal for twelve dollars, over a one-thousand-calorie one for twenty dollars, would look a lot more appetizing.

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