Can You Trust Restaurant Calorie Counts?


Most calorie counts on restaurant menus are accurate, according to new Tufts research. But almost one-fifth are off in the wrong direction-understating the actual calorie content of foods by 100 calories or more.

Were expecting consumers to go and look after their own weight and this is really tying their hands, says Susan B. Roberts, PhD, director of Tufts HNRCA Energy Metabolism Laboratory and author of The I Diet Failing to lose weight when eating out- even when trying to stick with a careful plan-is such a common issue in people joining my weight loss groups that their problems were the inspiration for this study.

Tufts nutrition scientist Lorien E. Urban, PhD, lead author of the study, adds, We cant expect restaurants to be spot-on all the time with calories, but there needs to be guidelines to what a reasonable range of accuracy is.

The researchers measured the actual caloric energy in 269 foods from 42 restaurants, including seven fast-food and seven sit-down eateries, in three states. Among restaurants tested were such popular chains as McDonalds, Burger King, Olive Garden, Chipotle, Taco Bell, Boston Market, Bob Evans, P.F. Chang and Dennys. Food items were ordered for take-out and then tested in a laboratory by measuring the heat produced from the foods combustion.

Overall, 40% of the foods contained at least 10 more calories than claimed on restaurant menus, while 53% actually contained at least 10 fewer calories than stated. Sit-down restaurants calorie counts were more likely to be off, which the researchers ascribed to poorer control of portion size.

Most worrisome was the significant fraction of foods tested that packed 100 or more extra calories. Says Roberts, Typically, the foods that were stated as low-calorie on the menu contained more calories than they should, which is really bad for dieters. Also prone to higher-than-stated calorie counts were desserts and foods high in carbohydrates.

Percentage-wise, some dishes far exceeded their stated calorie counts. For example:

    • Olive Gardens chicken and gnocchi soup had nearly double the listed 250 calories, and the minestrone soup more than doubled its 100-calorie claim, totaling 265.
    • Bob Evans cranberry-pecan chicken salad with dressing, listed at 672 calories, had 315 and 551 extra calories in two tests.
    • P.F. Changs healthy-sounding brown rice measured 477 calories, more than double the menu number of 190.
    • Four tests of On the Borders chips and salsa found more than triple the claimed 430 calories, up to 1,511 actual calories.

The new health-care law passed in 2010 expands requirements that some food providers disclose calorie counts, but Roberts and Urban caution that the effectiveness of such rules depends on the accuracy of the numbers. Food purchased in restaurants, they point out, accounts for about 35% of Americans daily calories.

The results of this study have implications for pending implementation of new legislation requiring more restaurants to document the energy content of their menu items, the researchers note. Although our study showed that stated energy contents in restaurants are relatively accurate on average, thus supporting greater availability of this information, projected benefits for preventing weight gain and facilitating weight loss are likely to be reduced if restaurant foods with lower stated energy contents provide more energy content than stated. Additional portion control in restaurants has the potential to facilitate individual efforts to reduce energy intake and to help resolve the national obesity epidemic.

TO LEARN MORE: JAMA, July 20, 2011; abstract at


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