Restaurant Food Fattier Than You Think

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

From the WebMD Archives

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.


Unwary Diners

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 foods.

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, respectively.

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.

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on July 27, 2006


SOURCES: Burton, S. American Journal of Public Health, September 2006; vol 96. News release, American Public Health Association.

© 2006 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.