Thursday, July 07, 2011

Restaurant calories - a cautionary tale

Restaurant calories are stupid high.

Doesn't matter if what you're ordering sounds like it's made with healthy ingredients, the likelihood is that a single meal will have at least a half a day's worth of calories, and sometimes, a couple of days worth.

That's not the cautionary tale. This is.

A reader sent me an email the other day. His wife had eaten out at a big chain fast casual restaurant and had ordered a pasta dish. She'd eaten half of it, and brought the other half home, and gave it to my reader to bring for lunch the next day.

My reader happens to be someone who weighs and measures their food, and given this chain posted their calorie counts online, he figured he'd weigh it and calculate the calories involved.

Imagine his surprise when his wife's half eaten portion of pasta still weighed as much as the full portion listed on the chain's website. The actual plated restaurant portion therefore, had double the already large number of calories the chain claimed.

Coincidentally, later that same week, I saw another patient who happened to work in a kitchen at that very same chain. They told me that when the plated food doesn't look quite right, or if it's taken too long to prepare, they simply plate more food so that the customer, who might have been upset with the wait or the aesthetics, is instead thrilled with their portion size.

For me those two stories gave me my first pause regarding mandated calorie labeling. Not enough pause to change my view that it'll be exceedingly helpful to those who want to pay attention, but enough pause to worry that some folks may be lulled into a false sense of security, and that coincident with any legislative calorie labeling effort, should be a massive public health campaign to encourage from scratch, home cooking.

[Below is a quick clip from CBS on menu labeled calories - email subscribers, you need to head to the blog to watch]


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  1. Anonymous8:01 am

    You know, I've often wondered about this very topic. Indeed, I suspected that the cooks didn't really pay too much attention to exactly what they were supposed to plate in accordance with the calorie count. I wonder if restaurants will be more careful with that when they are under RULES that mandate they post the calorie info. Anybody know what kind of enforcement there will be?

  2. Bonnie Modugno, MS, RD10:17 am

    Over plating food is a common problem. I have analyzed meals for restaurants. When food was cheaper one local deli was looking to offer healthier options. I talked to the chef. The chef told me the three egg omelette was actually closer to 6-8 eggs. He said he just cooked enough so it looked right on the (extra large) plate.

  3. Anonymous2:39 pm

    I remember being at Red Lobster for lunch a few years ago and I ordered the lunch portion grilled salmon. When the waitress brought me my plate, I told her the portion was way too big to be the lunch portion. She said it was correct. I didn't finish it - ate about half. When I took the remainder home I weighed it and it was 6oz!

    I just thought it was an error. I would never have guessed it was common practice.

    I don't eat out very often any more as I'm having RNY surgery at the end of this month but it's a great post to relay to others I know who eat out frequently and think they're making good choices.

  4. This is a very important issue, thank you for posting. While portion size is a huge issue in itself, it's the content of the meals that is filled with calories and fat. Restaurant chains, like fast food franchises are afraid of losing customers and therefore losing revenue so labeling is never voluntary.

  5. I do post-meal-analysis on food as often as I can: take home half, take the food apart and weigh the various bits. Strip the cheese (now cold) off a slice of pizza, weigh cheese and crust separately. It doesn't give precise data, but it does tell me if the estimate I get from the restaurant's website, or the generic "slice of cheese pizza, x grams" from a calorie counter is even ballpark. I use the higher number to track, of course.

  6. Perhaps the solution to this problem is to eat at French restaurants. Who ever heard of excessively large portions in those establishments?

  7. Anonymous4:58 am

    Mc Donalds has consistent portion sizes.

    Subway has measured portions except for the veggies, which are good to have lots of anyway.

  8. To Anonymous #1: This, unfortunately, is the problem with those rules. One thing I still get (very occasionally now) is chicken fried steak (country fried steak) from Chilis. A steak is a steak but some times I feel like I got a puny portion, sometimes I get a really nice sized piece. I suspect the smaller ones are big enough not to run afoul of those laws, but I'm happy to get a bigger one. I suspect that if they started having to cut and weigh all the steaks the same to the puny size to please the calorie police there will be an awful lot of disappointed customers. If I'm getting a steak or prime rib at an Outback or similar, I'm ecstatic to get a more generous portion.

    I think we "weight watchers" need to be reasonable in our requests too. The more detailed info (weight) is given on most websites so we can plan ahead of time and need to learn to be better estimators of portions. Then build a cushion into the day's calories. If we can't do that, then we need to just avoid restaurants until we have things under a degree of control to where we can estimate for ourselves.

  9. Wow. That is appalling. Thanks so much for sharing this information and especially the personal tales. It's good that these people were aware, but many if not most are not. This is an issue that needs to be dealt with in a constructive, healthful manner.

  10. The vice president of Ruby Tuesday is a complete idiot if he really thinks including calories on packaged foods has contributed to the rise in obesity rates. His comment was so clearly to avoid all responsibility to consumers and avoid having to a) reduce calories of RT's food or b) deal with the consequences of an educated customer.

    As you've said before Yoni, nothing matters more to a corporation than profit.

  11. I love reading your blog daily in my morning emails. Thank you for all over insight. While I was doing some research for work, I came across this link and I immediately thought of you. While you're not in the US, I am sure you have some of these places in Canada...

  12. I've given up eating healthy at restaurants it's just impossible. If you want to eat healthy cook at home. Your health is not something you should play games with. I understand once in a while for the social aspect but your health is the most important thing in your life. It's time to act on what matters.