How accurate are you in estimating the calories in your fast-food meal? Unless you are exceptional, you’ll underestimate the calories by 20 to 25 percent. And the larger your meal, the more inclined you’ll be to underestimate the calories.
Researchers who studied the responses of 1,877 customers in 89 fast-food restaurants (McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, KFC, Subway and Dunkin’ Donuts) in New England have concluded that people generally underestimate the calorie content of meals. The customers consisted of adults (age 19 and older), adolescents (ages 11 through 20) and school-age children (3 to 15 years of age).
Within this population, about two-thirds of the adults, one-third of the adolescents and over half of the school-age children were overweight or obese.
Despite the laws passed in many states and cities requiring chain restaurants to include calorie information on their menus, the widespread underestimation of calories suggests that the educational effort to date is ineffective. Three-quarters of the surveyed customers were unaware of calorie information on the menu, and “less than 5% reported using it to help them choose their meal.”
What may be most surprising about the study is that the greatest underestimation of calories occurred among Subway diners. Customers eating at Subway restaurants underestimated the calories consumed by 20 and 25 percent more than customers eating at McDonald’s. (Are the calorie estimates of McDonald’s meals more accurate than those of Subway meals because we know we are eating “fat” food at McDonald’s but think we are eating “thin” food at Subway? The answer to this question wasn’t addressed in the survey.)
Three years ago, President Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which requires calorie information on chain restaurant menus, on menus of similar retail food establishments and on vending machines. The issuance of guidelines, however, has been indefinitely delayed. In explaining the delay, Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration said that menu labeling has turned out to be one of the most challenging issues:
There are very, very strong opinions and powerful voices both on the consumer and public health side and on the industry side, and we have worked very hard to sort of figure out what really makes sense and also what is implementable.
But even if the caloric information becomes available to consumers, will it make a difference in how much or what kind of food customers choose? Maybe posting how long we need to walk to work off the 980-calorie double cheeseburger, large fries and 16-ounce soft drink—rather than calorie count—will help us make healthier choices. What do you think?