The 3 Week Diet

Tufts Univ. Study Shows Restaurant Calorie Counts Not Always Accurate


A recent study shows that restaurant calorie counts, such as we see on menus and on Web sites can underestimate the actual caloric content by as much as 1,000 calories. The new study was conducted by Tufts University Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging in Boston and was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

The study analyzed 269 dishes from 42 restaurants and fast-food chains, among them Olive Garden, Boston Market, P.F. Chang, Denny’s, Chipotle, McDonald’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell. Here is a quick summary of the findings:

  • 50 dishes contained 100 calories or more that stated, and of these 17 foods had at least 273 more calories.
  • 108 dishes had at least 10 calories more than stated.
  • 141 foods had at least 10 calories less.

A couple of some of the more extreme examples: On the Border Mexican Grill and Cantina chips and salsa, claimed 430 calories. It was tested four times, and each time the calorie count was considerably higher: 1,040,1,007 and 918 more calories.

empty plate

You can see a summary of the study at USA Today: Healthy restaurant dishes pack more calories than expected

Senior researcher Susan Roberts is quoted in the article, stating:

“I have a Ph.D. in nutrition, and I can’t tell if my dinner is 500 or 800 calories just by looking at the plate, and our study shows you can’t rely on the restaurants’ numbers for an individual meal.”

The study underscores the problem with restaurant food; as it is prepared at various establishments and franchises, it would be virtually impossible for the counts to be 100 percent accurate; much of that may stem from the amount of fats and oils used in the dish. The exact portion size may have some variance, and of course side ingredients — sauces and garnishes — can pile on extra calories.

Navigating through restaurant choices can be a challenge, and we can’t rely on restaurants calling a dish “low fat” or “healthy” or assurances that it’s healthy food to lose weight or stay on a weight management program. It’s best to get foods cooked unadorned; at Chinese food restaurants, the steamed vegetables and brown rice, with sauce on the side for instance. Or at buffets or steakhouses, the baked potato without butter or sour cream, and certain selections from the salad bar may be a safer bet. If those options are not available, it’s well worth the effort to inquire of the server how a food is prepared and, if needed, to make special requests which many kitchens will oblige.

For more tips and pointers check out the free SparkPeople Restaurant Guide.

For additional commentary on the study , see the following:

Check out a video report on the study below.

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