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Restaurant Calorie Counts Don't Help Diners Eat Better

Restaurant Calorie Counts Don't Help Diners Eat Better

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OK, we admit it: We might be wrong.

Despite the fact that plenty of restaurant institutions have put up calorie counts on their actual menu, which we thought would help people eat better, a new study says that it might not help at all, reports.

In fact, researchers who staked out two New York City McDonald's found that sometimes, being given full calorie information might make adults eat more.

The study, led by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and published in the American Journal of Public Health, pulled 1,121 adults and divided them into three groups. The first group was given information about recommended calories for a single meal (640 for women and 800 for men). The second group was told how many calories were recommended for a day (2,000 for women and 2,400 for men). The third was given no additional information.

All the McDonald's had calorie counts on their menus, but even then the men and women tended to eat more than the recommended intake, no matter what information was given to them.

Furthermore, those who received general calorie information tended to eat a little bit more than the no-information group. Julie Downs, lead author, speculates that when people see how many calories they're allowed to eat, they try to hit that. So a Big Mac might be listed as 550 calories, so "[customers] maybe feel OK to go ahead and get a slightly bigger main dish, but at the same time still get the same side dish and drink they would normally get. And then all of a sudden they're up over 1,100 calories for the meal. Each one item may seem OK, but it adds up," Downs told Web MD. So it's not that they don't care; it's just they don't do the math.

Obviously, if you're an avid calorie-counter it will definitely help, but as for making consumers make more informed health decisions, Downs suggests giving them calorie information might spur people to order a little bit more than necessary, instead of relying on their gut instinct that a burger is a burger and you probably shouldn't order two.

Good Eats for Better Bones

Let’s face it -- most of us could do more for our bones. An estimated 44 million Americans are at risk for, or have, osteoporosis, a disease where bones become increasingly fragile and sometimes fracture. Though women are 4 times more likely to suffer from osteoporosis, men are affected as well. Exercise and some medications can help, but what you eat plays a vital role. Whether you’re worried or not, you can’t go wrong incorporating more of these foods into your daily routine.

When it comes to bone health, your most prized nutrients are calcium, vitamin D and magnesium. Calcium is the essential mineral for bone-building -- 98% of our body’s calcium is found in the skeleton. Calcium gives strength and stability to our frames. Pretty important, right? Vitamin D, meanwhile, helps our bodies absorb calcium and keep our total body calcium levels in check. As for magnesium, this mineral helps in bone formation and aids in preventing fragility -- our bones contain more than half of our body’s overall magnesium.

Milk, yogurt and cheese are high-calcium foods that also contain healthy protein and a host of other vitamins and minerals (milk, for example, also has some magnesium and added vitamin D). One cup of milk has about 30% of your daily calcium and 25% of your vitamin D. Stick to the low-fat (1%) or non-fat versions of milk and yogurt, and choose low-fat cheese. This will keep the fat, cholesterol and calories under control.

Still stumped in the dairy aisle? Check out our shopping tips for picking the healthiest cheeses and for navigating the dairy case.

If you’re vegan, have trouble digesting dairy or just aren’t a fan, there are plenty of calcium-fortified foods to trade in for dairy. Many juices like orange ( Tropicana is a good example) and grapefruit ( like this one from MinuteMaid) come with added calcium -- one cup of fortified OJ has the same amount of calcium and vitamin D as a glass of milk and more than a day's worth of vitamin C. You’ll usually find calcium added to citrus juices because their strong flavor disguises any aftertaste. Some brands are better than others, so you may need to shop around to find a fave. ( Learn more about picking the right juices.)

Soy milk and other non-dairy milk alternatives like rice and almond milk also have calcium added. Speaking of soy, some packaged tofu made with calcium carbonate also contains the bone-building mineral.

And the list goes on -- many breads and cereals are also fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Read up on our top picks for healthy breakfast cereals. Be sure to check the labels for any extra calcium.

Many vegetables contain calcium -- especially the dark leafy ones like broccoli, kale, collards and turnip greens. You don’t have to eat boatloads -- one cup of chopped, raw kale has nearly 10% of your daily needs. Working more of these veggies into your diet is good for more than just bone health they’re also low in calories and chock-full of antioxidants like vitamins A and C.

Fish with small, edible bones like sardines and canned salmon are yet another way to get some extra calcium. Canned sardines, canned tuna and salmon also contain some vitamin D. As an added nutritional bonus, these types of fish also provide good doses of heart-healthy omega-3 fats.

Nuts and whole grains -- and fruits and veggies in general -- are all good sources of magnesium. Almonds do double-duty with their calcium (about 8% of your daily needs per ounce), and all nuts contain heart-healthy unsaturated fats. Whole grains from brown rice, pastas, breads and cereals also supply hunger-fighting, cholesterol-lowering fiber.

The Best Diet: Quality Counts

“A calorie is a calorie” is an oft-repeated dietary slogan, and not overeating is indeed an important health measure. Rather than focusing on calories alone, however, emerging research shows that quality is also key in determining what we should eat and what we should avoid in order to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Rather than choosing foods based only on caloric value, think instead about choosing high-quality, healthy foods, and minimizing low-quality foods.

  • High-quality foods include unrefined, minimally processed foods such as vegetables and fruits, whole grains, healthy fats and healthy sources of protein – the foods recommended in the Healthy Eating Plate.
  • Lower-quality foods include highly processed snack foods, sugar-sweetened beverages, refined (white) grains, refined sugar, fried foods, foods high in saturated and trans fats, and high-glycemic foods such as potatoes.

There isn’t one “perfect” diet for everyone, owing to individual differences in genes and lifestyle.

Quality counts

One study analyzed whether certain foods were more or less likely to promote weight gain. This type of research examining specific foods and drinks allows us to understand whether “a calorie is a calorie,” or if eating more higher-quality foods and fewer lower-quality foods can lead to weight loss and maintenance.

Researchers in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health show us that quality is in fact very important in determining what we should eat to achieve and maintain a healthy weight, and that the notion of “a calorie is a calorie” does not tell the whole story.

  • In a study of over 120,000 healthy women and men spanning 20 years, researchers determined that weight change was most strongly associated with the intake of potato chips, potatoes, sugar-sweetened beverages, and both processed and unprocessed red meats. The researchers concluded that consumption of processed foods higher in starches, refined grains, fats, and sugars can increase weight gain.
  • Foods shown to be associated with weight loss were vegetables, whole grains, fruits, nuts, and yogurt.
  • Researchers did not discount the importance of calories, instead suggesting that choosing high-quality foods (and decreasing consumption of lower-quality foods) is an important factor in helping individuals consume fewer calories. (23)

View the HSPH news release, “Changes in specific dietary factors may have big impact on long-term weight gain: Weight-loss Strategy to Only ‘Eat Less, Exercise More” May be Overly Simplistic’”

Managing macronutrients: Does it matter?

With the proliferation of macronutrient-based diets over the past several decades, from low-fat to low-carbohydrate, discussion of the three main macronutrients – carbohydrates, proteins, and fats – has become standard when talking about optimal diets. Researchers have begun comparing these “macronutrient management”-style diets to one another in order to determine which is most effective, but thus far evidence is largely inconclusive.

One study, published in JAMA in 2007, compared four weight-loss diets ranging from low to high carbohydrate intake. This 12-month trial followed over 300 overweight and obese premenopausal women, randomly assigning them to either an Atkins (very low carbohydrate), Zone (low carbohydrate), LEARN (high carbohydrate), or Ornish (very high in carbohydrate) diet.

  • After one year, weight loss was greater for women in the Atkins diet group compared with the other diet groups.
  • This study also examined secondary outcomes focused on metabolic effects (such as cholesterol, body fat percentage, glucose levels and blood pressure), and found that those for the Atkins group were comparable with or more favorable than the other diet groups.
  • There was no significant difference in weight loss among the other three diets (Zone, LEARN, and Ornish).
  • This study does raise questions about about long-term effects and mechanisms, but the researchers concluded that a low-carbohydrate, high-protein, high-fat diet may be considered a feasible recommendation for weight loss. (24)

Another study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2009, challenged the above study’s findings by testing four different types of diets and producing results that showed comparable average weight loss among the different diets.

  • The study followed 800 people over 2 years, assigning subjects to one of four diets: Low-fat and average-protein, low-fat and high-protein, high-fat and average-protein, and high-fat and high protein.
  • Researchers concluded that all of the diets resulted in meaningful weight loss, despite the differences in macronutrient composition.
  • The study also found that the more group counseling sessions participants attended, the more weight they lost, and the less weight they regained. This supports the idea that not only is what you eat important, but behavioral, psychological, and social factors are important for weight loss as well. (25)

An additional study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2010, looked at the role of protein and glycemic index upon weight loss maintenance. Researchers first implemented a low-calorie diet to produce weight loss, then examined whether protein and glycemic index impacted weight loss maintenance.

  • The study population was made up of nearly 800 overweight adults from European countries who had lost at least 8% of their initial body weight with a low-calorie diet. Participants were then assigned one of five diets to prevent weight regain over a 26-week period: A low-protein and low-glycemic-index diet, a low-protein and high-glycemic-index diet, a high-protein and low-glycemic-index diet, a high-protein and high-glycemic-index diet, or a control diet.
  • The low-protein-high-glycemic-index diet was associated with subsequent significant weight regain, and weight regain was less in the groups assigned to a high-protein diet than in those assigned to a low-protein diet, as well as less in the groups assigned to a low-glycemic-index diet than in those assigned to a high-glycemic-index diet.
  • These results show that a modest increase in protein content and a modest reduction in the glycemic index led to an improvement in maintenance of weight loss. (26)

The results from these three studies suggest that there may be some benefits to a macronutrient-based dietary approach, but research also shows that while a particular diet may result in weight loss for one person, it may not be effective for another person due to individual differences in genes and lifestyle. For those seeking the “perfect” one-size-fits-all diet, then, there isn’t one! The great news is that everyone can follow The Healthy Eating Plate guidelines and choose healthy, flavorful foods to create a diet that works best for you.


23. Mozaffarian, D., et al., Changes in diet and lifestyle and long-term weight gain in women and men. N Engl J Med, 2011. 364(25): p. 2392-404.
24. Gardner, C.D., et al., Comparison of the Atkins, Zone, Ornish, and LEARN diets for change in weight and related risk factors among overweight premenopausal women: the A TO Z Weight Loss Study: a randomized trial. JAMA, 2007. 297(9): p. 969-77.
25. Sacks, F.M., et al., Comparison of weight-loss diets with different compositions of fat, protein, and carbohydrates .N Engl J Med,2009. 360(9): p. 859-73.
26. Larsen, T.M., et al., Diets with high or low protein content and glycemic index for weight-loss maintenance .N Engl J Med, 2010. 363(22): p. 2102-13.

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The contents of this website are for educational purposes and are not intended to offer personal medical advice. You should seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The Nutrition Source does not recommend or endorse any products.

Courtesy of Red Lobster

Rainbow Trout (Half) with Broccoli and Mashed Potatoes

Opting for the broiled version versus the "golden-fried" will always save you hundreds of calories. This low-calorie meal is rounded out by sides of that will keep you full, too. If you like to pair your fish with a condiment, we recommend opting for cocktail sauce over tartar sauce. To discover more satisfying eats that will help you trim down, check out these best carbs for weight loss.

Diners, Beware: The 8 Dishes You Should Never Order At P.F. Chang&rsquos

P.F. Chang&rsquos has made its mark as a mall mainstay&mdashand it's a got a good rep for legitimately great food. And while you can craft a health meal out of the fresh apps and entrees, a lot are serious diet-killers. To help you navigate the menu, we've picked out the worst offenders&mdashlike the dishes that almost double the recommended daily sodium intake. Fingers crossed your favorite didn't make the cut.

This noodle dish is probably one of the least healthy options on the entire menu. Let's break it down: The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) suggests eating less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day and other organizations like the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics say even less&mdashbetween 1,500 and 2,300 milligram. The Long Life Noodles and Prawns clocks in at 3,830 milligrams. And the calorie count? Well, once you add up the noodles, the crispy prawns, the black beans, and the chili peppers, you're at 1,040. There are 130 grams of carbs, which is nearly your daily allotment&mdashand definitely not Keto.

None of the soups on P.F. Chang's will do you any favors, but the Hot and Sour is the especially bad. A bowl of the tangy soup has 470 calories&mdasha lot for something that's not the main attraction. You're also slurping back a whopping 3,800 milligrams of sodium and 63 carbs. If you'd rather eat coal than anything else on the menu, settle for a cup of this stuff, which only packs 70 calories, 570 milligrams of sodium, and 9 carbs.

Winner, winner, chicken dinner&mdashbut, like, not in a good way. This new-to-the-menu dish has one of the highest calorie counts of the chicken entrées. Don&rsquot let the veggies fool you. That thick, saucy curry puts a damper on anything that&rsquos good in this bowl. With 1,180 calories, 76 grams of fat, and 37 grams of sugar, no amount of butternut squash is gonna make you feel better for eating this.

Walnut Shrimp with Melon sounds like a refreshing dish. until you realize it&rsquos tossed in creamy Asian aioli. This entrée has the highest amount of fat within the seafood category, with a whopping 107 grams. (And, yes, that's way more than you should have in a day, let alone in one meal.) Are you a glutton for punishment? Then you'll want to know there are also 48 grams of sugar and 1,340 calories.

Your mom has always told you to eat your veggies, but she probably wouldn't endorse these green beans. The shareable plate comes with a spicy sauce and is more reminiscent of French fries than vegetables. Still think it's a healthier option? Actuallyyyy, the Crispy Green Beans dish has 990 calories while a large McDonald&rsquos French fries is 510 calories! Shocked? Yah, same.

You can&rsquot go to a Chinese restaurant and not get egg rolls, right? The crispiness! That crackle! Alas, your health will suffer. A serving of four rolls, which come filled with veggies and accompanied by sweet and sour mustard sauce, is 970 calories, has 55 grams of fat, 3,080 milligrams of sodium, and 92 grams of carbs. Say it with us: Oh, snap! The chicken egg rolls fare slightly better on every count&mdashbut not that much.

The Mandarin Crunch Salad seems like an overall healthy option when everyone else is scarfing down fried rice and dumplings, but look closer. Things aren't always as they seem: The base of the salad has julienned veggies, chopped cabbage, mango, almonds, and rice sticks, plus it comes with a mandarin vinaigrette. On its own, the meal will cost you 730 calories, 46 grams of fat, 1,500 milligrams of sodium, and 71 grams of carbs. FOR A SALAD. Add in shrimp or chicken and you&rsquore upping those numbers by 200 calories and more than 800 milligrams of sodium.

The impact on eating habits

Gershon at Wetherspoon confirms that calorie labelling doesn't necessarily lead to a dramatic shift in purchasing habits. He says that, while it probably does help people make better decisions, it's up to us to use the information as we see fit.

"Low-calorie dishes and healthy options are very popular, but in the same light so are the high-calorie options," he says. (Good news if you thought you'd be the only one ordering that 1,565 kcal breakfast.)

In a recent study, which combined results from various earlier studies, researchers found that adding calorie counts to menus led to diners eating around 12% fewer calories per meal. However, the team noted that further studies would be needed to come to a more definite conclusion.

A similar study last year was more damning, concluding: "Menu labeling away-from-home did not result in change in quantity or quality . of calories consumed among US adults."


Courtesy of Chipotle

Chicken, Pinto Bean, Fresh Tomato Salsa, and Veggie Salad

"When I eat salad, I use it as an opportunity to get some of my carbohydrates from beans. [At Chipotle] I ask for double the veggies so I'm fully satisfied and getting the most nutrients I can," says registered dietitian and personal trainer Jim White, RD, ACSM. To recreate White's go-to order, ask for a romaine lettuce base with one scoop of chicken, two scoops of fajita vegetables, one scoop of pinto beans, and tomato salsa.

Calories on the Menu

In today’s busy world, Americans eat and drink about one-third of their calories from foods prepared away from home. In general, these foods provide more calories, sodium, and saturated fat than meals consumed at home. For the average adult, eating one meal away from home each week translates to roughly 2 extra pounds each year. Over the course of 5 years, that’s 10 extra pounds.

Calorie labeling on menus can help you make informed and healthful decisions about meals and snacks. So, beginning May 7, 2018, calories will be listed on many menus and menu boards of restaurants and other food establishments that are part of a chain of 20 or more locations. This will help you know your options and make it easier to eat healthy when eating out.

Here are steps for making dining out choices that are healthy and delicious:

  1. Find out your calorie needs
  2. Look for calorie and nutrition information
  3. Make the best choice for you

Find Out Your Calorie Needs

Knowing your calorie needs is important to managing your daily food and beverage choices. You can use 2,000 calories a day as a guide, but your calorie needs may vary based on your age, sex, and physical activity level.

To find out your specific calorie needs, use the Estimated Daily Calorie Needs table (PDF: 2.63MB).

Look for Calorie and Nutrition Information

You may have noticed calorie information on some menus or menu boards. Or maybe you have seen nutrition information on restaurant websites or on phone apps. This information can help you make informed and healthful meal and snack choices.

Where will I see the calories?

Calories are listed next to the name or price of the food or beverage on menus and menu boards, including drive-thru windows, and may be at the following types of chains:

  • Chain restaurants
  • Chain coffee shops
  • Bakeries
  • Ice cream shops
  • Self-service food locations, such as buffets and salad bars
  • Movie theaters
  • Amusement parks
  • Grocery/convenience stores

Where will I NOT see calorie information?

  • Foods sold at deli counters and typically intended for further preparation
  • Foods purchased in bulk in grocery stores, such as loaves of bread from the bakery section
  • Bottles of liquor displayed behind a bar
  • Food in transportation vehicles, such as food trucks, airplanes, and trains
  • Food on menus in elementary, middle, and high schools that are part of U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program
  • Restaurants and other establishments that are not part of a chain of 20 or more

What about meals with multiple options?

When a menu item is available in different flavors or varieties (for example, vanilla and chocolate ice cream), or includes an entrée with your choice of side items, such as a sandwich that comes with either chips, side salad, or fruit, the calorie amounts will be shown as follows:

Two Choices
Calories are separated by a slash
(for example 250/350 calories)

Three or More Choices
Calories are shown in a range
(for example 150-300 calories)

Will information about other nutrients also be available?

In addition to calorie information, covered establishments are also required to provide written nutrition information such as saturated fat, sodium, and dietary fiber to consumers upon request. So, when eating out, don't hesitate to ask for more nutrition information if you need it.

Make the Best Choice for You

Eating healthy comes down to personal choices. Try these tips to help you make the best choices for you and your family.

Comparing calorie and nutrition information can help you make better decisions before you order.

Side dishes can add many calories to a meal. Steamed, grilled, or broiled vegetables and fruit are often lower-calorie options. With calorie information, you can make the best choice for you.

Calorie information can help you decide how much to enjoy now and how much to save for later.

Asking for sauces or salad dressings on the side lets you choose how much to use.

Foods described with words like creamy, fried, breaded, battered, or buttered are typically higher in calories than foods described as baked, roasted, steamed, grilled, or broiled. Use calorie information to help you make the choice that is right for you.

Calories from beverages can add up quickly. With calorie information, you can find lower-calorie options.

The Rise of Obesity and Dining Out

Obesity in America has increased as restaurants—fast-food or otherwise—have proliferated. Before the 1990s, restaurants were largely reserved for special occasions or perhaps a weekly treat. Think pizza or Chinese food on Friday night or a birthday celebration at your favorite little Italian eatery. Most families, regardless of household income, ate out infrequently. With the rise of family-casual dining in the '90s, that all began to change. As dual-income families became more common, more consumers sought the convenience of dining out.

Restaurant chains like Olive Garden, Applebee’s, and the Ninety Nine catered to the growing middle class, offering moderately priced meals and children’s menus. This was great for parents slogging through long commutes from suburbs to cities and facing weekends and evenings packed with sports practices and other family obligations. While family-casual chains offered a nice dining atmosphere that mimicked eating at home, the food was unlike most home-cooked meals. It was generally higher in fat, sodium, sugar, and calories than what mom or dad would make.

According to a 2016 study by the Journal of Academy and Nutrition Dietetics, an average restaurant meal is around 1,200 calories. Sit-down restaurants can actually be more unhealthy than fast-food ones. Consider that the average American eats out four to five times a week, then add in other convenient junk food snacks, and the number of calories the average adult consumes shoots well past the recommended daily amount of 2000. Over time, this adds extra pounds and problems like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

Convenient Home-Cooked Meal Kits

If the time it takes to gather recipes, plan what you&rsquore going to eat for a week and grocery shop is what&rsquos holding you back from eating healthy meals at home, there&rsquos an easy solution: meal subscription boxes.

There are more than 100 different companies that box up multiple meals&rsquo worth of groceries and deliver them to your house each week. Sure, the cost is more than if you did the meal planning and shopping yourself, but many find the convenience worth it. When your meal box is delivered, you can just throw the premeasured ingredients together and follow the cooking instructions to get portion-controlled, tasty dinners on the table in minutes. You get to choose from a constantly rotating list of recipes. Many companies offer low-carb, low-calorie, gluten-free or vegetarian options as well. And you avoid buying ingredients that go unused and sit in the fridge.

&ldquoWhether you&rsquore dining out or eating in, it&rsquos important to think about a balanced diet,&rdquo says Isuk. &ldquoThat means making sure you&rsquore getting a good mix of lean protein, vegetables, fruits, whole grains and healthy low-fat dairy.&rdquo

With such a wide range of convenient meal options available &mdash and the information you need to make smart, heart-healthy choices &mdash you can feel good about what you eat even when life gets busy.


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