Restaurant Food Fattier Than You Think
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'
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
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.
The results showed most people judged the less healthful items to be higher
in fat and calories than the more healthful items, which researchers say
suggests consumers are at least somewhat aware of nutritional differences among
But when it came to estimating the calorie count of the less healthful
entrees, respondents underestimated the number by an average of 642 calories --
or nearly 50%. In addition, the calorie content of the least healthful item,
cheese fries with ranch dressing, was underestimated by 2,000 calories.
Similarly, estimates of the fat and saturated fat levels of the less
healthful entrées were underestimated by an average 44 grams and 15 grams,
Sodium levels were underestimated by 1,557 milligrams and 4,353 milligrams,
respectively, for the less healthful and extremely unhealthful entrées.
Nutrition Info on Menus Might Help
In the second part of the study, researchers found the addition of
nutritional information on menus influenced what diners said they'd order.
Fewer said they'd order less healthful items like a hamburger and fries if
the fat and calorie count greatly exceeded their expectations.
The results suggest requiring restaurants to print nutritional information
on menus could be a useful tool for frequent diners and might help fight
obesity, the researchers say.
Without nutritional information, diners in this study underestimated the
calorie content of common menu items by an average of 600 calories. A diner who
ate 600 extra calories at a restaurant each week would add more than 30,000
extra calories and could gain nine extra pounds per year.