Calorie Counts: Can You Trust Them?

Ever wonder if you can really trust all of the numbers written on the label of your frozen chicken with vegetables and rice or next to the burger description in your local fast food emporium?

Well, it turns out that you’re right to wonder.  The New York Times (  reported on a Tufts study ( that evaluated the accuracy of calorie counts of 29 typical under 500 calorie quick-serve  and sit-down restaurant foods and 10 frozen complete meals bought in supermarkets.

The calorie counts of the restaurant foods averaged 18% more than stated and the calorie counts of the frozen foods averaged 8% more than stated. These were average numbers:  some restaurants under reported caloric content; some choices had up to 200% more calories than stated; and in some there were no real inaccuracies.

When some free side dishes were added to entrees they boosted the inaccuracy of the total stated calories to 245%.  This highlights the nasty little fact that all too often we forget to add the calorie count of those side dishes – which are often over the top in calories and fat – to the total calorie counts of our meals.

All of the variations fell in the 20% margin that the FDA allows for packaged food (although it doesn’t specify maximum overage for restaurant meals they also fell within the 20% margin).

It’s easy to understand how there can be variation in restaurant food – a longer pour of oil, a little more of a schmear of cream cheese on the bagel – it’s often in the hands of the preparer.  Prepackaged food produced under factory control is a little more difficult to understand and obviously accounts for overage of only 8% versus 18% (there’s some speculation that since food companies are heavily penalized for underweighting they may add a little more volume, and therefore calories, to protect against this possibility).  And, as a Tufts researcher points out: 5% excess calories daily for someone eating 2,000 calories a day could mean a 10 pound weight gain in one year.

What to do?  Be mindful and aware. If it looks to good to be true, it probably isn’t.  Translation:  If it’s swimming in oil, arrives with a big pat of butter melting on top, it’s smothered in melted cheese, or it’s gargantuan in size it’s probably not a low cal meal.  Trust your reaction and stick up for yourself.  If you don’t get what you ordered or what’s described, bring it back and ask for it to be prepared the way it’s supposed to be.

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