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Think you know how many calories are in that restaurant meal you’re eating? Think again

We Americans are terrible at estimating how many calories we’re taking in when we’re eating out, particularly if we think a restaurant serves healthy food, a new study has found. In fact, in one of the study’s experiments, people eating at restaurants deemed “healthy” thought they were eating only 56 percent as many calories as they actually did.

These results may help explain the “American obesity paradox” — the observation that as the popularity of healthier foods (fewer calories, less fat) expands, so does the size of America’s waistlines. 

“[O]ur findings show that the public health benefits of healthier foods are at least partially negated by the halo effects of health claims that lead people to order calorie-rich side dishes and beverages,” wrote the study’s authors, Pierre Chandon of INSEAD busines school and Brian Wansink of Cornell University.

But all is not lost. The study also found that if we stop and think about whether a meal is actually low in calories, despite what it’s called or where it’s served, we’re much better at making more healthful choices.

Here are the details of the study, which appears in the October issue of the Journal of Consumer Research. It included four experiments:

The first experiment began with researchers asking 49 regular customers of McDonald’s and Subway to rate (on a 9-point scale) how healthy they thought the food being served there was. Subway meals were rated significantly healthier (undoubtedly due to the hugely successful television ad campaigns starring “Subway dieter” Jared Fogle).

Next, the researchers asked 265 diners at McDonald’s and 253 at Subway to estimate the number of calories contained in a meal they had just purchased. Subway’s “health halo effect” (consumers’ belief that it serves healthier foods) led its customers to mistakenly estimate that a 1,000-calorie Subway meal contained 21 percent fewer calories than the same-calorie meal at McDonald’s.

In a second experiment, the researchers asked 316 regular Subway and McDonald’s patrons to estimate the number of calories contained in two Subway sandwiches and two McDonald’s burgers. (One meal from each restaurant contained 330 calories; the other, 600 calories.) Participants were also asked to rate how much attention they pay to nutrition in their food choices and whether calorie amounts affect those choices.

The experiment found that no matter how nutritionally aware people rated themselves, they still significantly underestimated the number of calories in the Subway meals. The “health halo effect” remained a factor.

In a third experiment, 46 undergraduate students were given a coupon good for either a 600-calorie McDonald’s Big Mac sandwich or a 900-calorie Subway 12-inch Italian BMT sandwich. Participants were then asked if they’d like to order a regular fountain drink (containing 155, 205, or 310 calories, depending on size), a diet fountain drink (zero calories) or one or two chocolate chip cookies (220 calories each).

Even though the “healthy” Subway sandwich contained 50 percent more calories than the Big Mac, participants who chose it also chose higher-calorie drinks and cookies containing up to 131 percent more calories.

But here comes the good news: In the final experiment, the researchers were able to eliminate the “health halo” and get participants to give more accurate calorie estimates by asking them to “consider the opposite” — specifically, to think about how a 660-calorie meal (a 6-inch Italian bologna sandwich and a 20-ounce glass of Coca-Cola) from “Good Karma Healthy Foods” may not be a typical healthy item from that restaurant. 

“Our findings suggest that [a] worthy public policy effort may be to help people to better estimate the number of calories they consume,” the study’s authors concluded. “There is nothing wrong with occasionally enjoying a high-calorie meal as long as people recognize that they have had a lot of calories and that they need to adjust their future calorie intake or expenditure accordingly.”

Meanwhile, said Wansink in a prepared statement, you can take a simple action to make sure you’re not hoodwinked by the health halo effect the next time you eat out: “If you’re eating at what you think is a healthy restaurant, take your best estimate of the calories in the meal — and double it. You’ll be a lot more accurate.”

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Gregory Lang on 10/12/2010 - 11:18 am.

    In defense of McDonalds, their nutritional information is easily available along with allergen information online.. The website has easy access and a brochure is available at the counter.

    Also, most McDonalds have the menu details posted on the wall. The back of the paper place-mats used on the trays for in-store purchases have nutritional information on the back.

    Admittedly the bulk of McDonalds business is drive through but with a bit of technology abbreviated nutrional information could be printed on the back of the drive thru receipt or a coded basic nutritional information on the front of the receipt with codes pre-printed on the back.

    To avoid clutter this would need to be rounded typical information, not the specifics of the hamburger without the pickle slice though a computer program could figure this out.

    As for the drive-thru menu board there could be “typical” calories, fat and sodium but we risk information overload. My little “vice” is $1 cones and shakes at fast food drive thru’s. More portion than cost. When I want more of a meal the drive-thru menu board is already overwhelming.

    Bottom line: The old saw “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink” applies. On the flip side Lenny Russo of Heartland Restaurant detailed the cost of complexity of local “independent” restaurants. If I get chicken wings from Dominos or Little Ceasears I can get the nutritional details. If I get take out from my favorite bar I can’t.

    There are a lot of chefs who work on the philosophy “fat is flavor”.

    There could be

  2. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 10/12/2010 - 04:14 pm.

    At least at Subway, you can ask that your chicken (rather than beef) sandwich be made without fatty/salty cheese, mayonnaise or other dressing, and without a salty pickle on the side. The lettuce, tomato, onion and other fresh foods add moisture that makes the sandwich really tasty.

  3. Submitted by Paul Scott on 10/12/2010 - 07:13 pm.

    Guys, seriously: dietary fat that isn’t trans fat is not the problem. Caliries aren’t even the problem. It’s refined carbs (i.e. Processed foods.)

    Looking for the nutritional content at mcDonalds is like looking for the Bhudda at the WWE.

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