Eating out, counting calories
June 5, 2007
Imagine a restaurant that left off the prices of food items from its menu. In this make-believe scenario, patrons would order their meals with little idea of the actual cost. Money to pay for their purchases would later be deducted from their bank accounts, after it was too late to make more economical choices.
It sounds absurd, but that’s how it is today for people who want to make healthier meal choices when they eat out. Menus tell us the prices, but we’re told nothing about the calorie count or other nutritional information of the foods we are ordering.
Those of us who want to lose weight – and avoid the disease and early death that result from poor food choices – are shooting in the dark whenever we dine out. Over the course of a lifetime, the real cost of all our blind decisions is deducted from our health, in terms of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
It doesn’t have to be this way. People should use all available means to consider the health effects of their meal options when eating out, just as they factor in the financial impacts.
A bill before the state legislature would require chain restaurants with 10 or more outlets to post nutritional information on menus, in parallel with a law in New York City that takes effect next month. The bill recently passed in the California Senate and is now under review in the Assembly.
But the same nutritional information that diners need for informed choices is already available today on many restaurant Web sites, or by request to the manager behind the counter.
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Most people have a vague idea that a salad is a healthier choice than a double cheeseburger. But finding out just how many calories can be saved by choosing the salad may actually start to change the habits of many restaurant patrons and slow down America’s obesity epidemic.
How would information about calorie counts, along with price, affect meal choices? I went to a familiar fast-food restaurant near my home to find out.
There I saw that for about $5 I could purchase a ready-to-eat salad with grilled chicken. This salad includes fresh vegetables, strips of grilled chicken breast fillet, shredded cheese and a cilantro lime glaze.
Alternatively, I saw that for the same $5 I could buy this restaurant chain’s signature sandwich as part of an “extra value meal.” In addition to the double-decker sandwich with its two meat patties and special sauce, the meal deal would include a medium order of french fries and a medium-sized soft drink.
With all those extras, the big burger meal looks like a better deal. But is it, when we take into account information about calories?
A quick check of on-line nutritional data showed that the mega-burger meal accounts for about 1,130 calories Ð less if you substitute a diet beverage, or more if you supersize the french fries.
That’s more than half of the total calorie intake recommended for a typical adult for an entire day, all in a single meal. It’s also more than three times the calorie load of the salad with grilled chicken.
Which meal looks like a better deal now?
Information is power, and the more information consumers have to make good choices, the easier it is for people to eat right when eating out.
– Jason Eberhart-Phillips, M.D., is the El Dorado County Health Officer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.