Do calorie counts on restaurant menus really count for something? Just as there’s no clear consensus on whether you should squirt ketchup on a hot dog, there’s no clear consensus on the value of calorie counts b
eing printed on menus.
Health and nutrition experts say calorie counts on menus — which alert you to how many calories are in that appetizer you’re eyeing — serve a valid purpose but don’t necessarily tell the full nutritional story.
Caitlin Hoff, a health investigator at ConsumerSafety.org
, points out that a calorie is a measurable unit of food energy, but that not all calories are equal when it comes to nutrition.
“If your health coach told you to eat only 1,200 calories a day without any other limitations, you could easily eat 1,200 calories of candy corn or potato chips,” Hoff says. “You would also be incredibly hungry for the rest of your day and malnourished, lacking necessary nutrients, proteins and healthy fats. Knowing the calories in your food and potentially eating fewer calories does not guarantee health.”
Along those lines, chef Melissa Eboli
, a nutrition and wellness counselor, says some foods like nuts and seeds are high in calories but also high in nutritional value.
Weight loss therapist Candice Seti
adds that a lower-calorie item might not be a healthier item. For instance, a 400-calorie cupcake loaded with sugar and preservatives is less beneficial than a 600-calorie dish chockfull of avocado, black beans
and other “real food.”
The federal Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, at some point will require restaurant chains to list a calorie count for each menu item. Some restaurants already comply with the law. The calorie-counting rule also will be mandated for certain grocery stores, convenience stores, gas stations, movie theaters and sports stadiums that sell prepared food.
In May, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration delayed compliance with the calorie-counting requirement until May 2018.
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has complained
that the calorie-counting rule, as it’s written now, is “unwise and unhelpful” and should be “more flexible and less burdensome.”
In the meantime, Americans continue to debate the merits of slapping calorie counts on menus.
, a health and kitchen coach, says she urges her clients to ignore calorie counts — or at least discount their importance.
Instead, she recommends focusing on the origin of the calories that you consume. For instance, are you getting them from whole grains
, lean proteins
, fruits and vegetables, or from white rice, potatoes and fried foods?
“Although total calories is important, it is the balance of protein, carbohydrate and fat in those calories that is even more important, as it determines the hormonal response from that meal,” says Barry Sears
, author of the “Zone Diet” book series and president of the Inflammation Research Foundation.
Eboli does put some stock in calorie counts, though. She says they raise nutritional awareness among consumers, perhaps prompting some of them to skip calorie-laden muffins or deceivingly unhealthy salads in favor of healthier alternatives
Registered dietitian Jennifer Bowers
says: “I love having the data at my fingertips. Knowledge is power! Calorie amounts on menus give me the data I need to make an informed decision. It helps me manage my daily nutrition budget, so to speak.”
For her part, Hoff, the ConsumerSafety.org health investigator, wonders how much consumers actually will pay attention to calorie counts on menus. The calorie-counting rule aims to guide Americans toward smarter food options, she says, but “if people skim the menu ignoring these numbers, then what good is it doing to reduce obesity and encourage healthy choices?”
On top of that, Hoff says, calorie counts on restaurant menus can be off track. Even at the same fast-food joint, one small bag of fries may not have the same number of calories as the small bag of fries right next to it, she says.
“The differing lengths of the fries and the number of fries in each bag make reporting an exact calorie count for your particular bag impossible,” Hoff says.
Further complicating matters is that switching salad dressings
, changing up condiments or swapping side dishes can throw off the calorie count for a menu item, she says.
“Many people don’t take these variables into consideration when ordering their meal,” Hoff says, “even when the calorie count is a priority to them.”
Nonetheless, Hoff acknowledges the calorie-counting rule isn’t “all bad.” Consumers will make better food choices once the rule takes effect, she says, and some restaurants might introduce healthier menu options as consumers become more calorie-conscious.
“The positive side of calorie counts on menus is that it does often shock people to learn that what they’ve been typically eating is significantly higher in calories than they would have guessed,” says Seti, the weight loss therapist. “This can often cause people make a change to a healthier option.”