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Diners Seriously Underestimate Calories and Fat; Information on Menus Might Fight Obesity

July 27, 2006 -- Most restaurant diners underestimate the fat and calorie content of food on the menu by about half, according to a new survey.

Researchers at the University of Arkansas found the actual saturated fat and calorie levels of typical restaurant menu offerings were about twice diners' estimates.

When nutritional information was provided on the menu, many diners selected more healthful, lower-fat and lower-calorie items.

Americans eat an estimated 70 billion meals and snacks at fast-food and table-service restaurants each year. The study shows many may not be aware of the high fat, calorie, and sodium content found in what they're eating.

What's on the Menu?

The study, from researcher Scott Burton, PhD, of the University of Arkansas, and colleagues, was published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Researchers surveyed nearly 200 adults who had eaten an average of 14 meals at a restaurant in the past month.

Participants were asked to estimate the calories, fat, saturated fat, and sodium content of nine restaurant entrées after reading brief descriptions similar to what would appear on a menu.

  • Three of the entrées -- grilled chicken breast, pot roast, and turkey sandwich -- were considered "healthful options." The number of calories ranged from 370 to 640; the amount of fat ranged from 6 to26 grams.
  • Five less healthful entrées included common menu items -- a hamburger with fries, chef's salad, fettuccine Alfredo, and two others -- ranged in calories from 930 to 1660, and had 63 to 97 grams of fat.
  • The remaining item, cheese fries with ranch dressing, was deemed "extremely unhealthful," with 3,010 calories and 217 grams of fat.

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