Counting calories when you are eating out can be confusing. You need to guess at your portion size and consider which menu options may be healthy before you even see the food. With the nation’s obesity epidemic increasing almost as fast as the number of food dollars spent on eating outside of the home, the government has become concerned.
They’ve taken pity on the little guy (that’s us) and proposed health care reform language aimed at making caloric information available in restaurants. In the best-case scenario, the new health care reform bill would require restaurants with more than 20 chains across the country to post caloric information to help the consumer make healthy, informed decisions.
However, it turns out there are a few problems with menu labeling in restaurants. A new study compiled by faculty at Tufts University and published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found restaurant meals that contained 18 percent more calories than advertised.
Other independent studies conducted through the New York Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) have found menu items with calorie counts that are off by as much as 50 percent. The problem centers on hard-to-regulate portion sizes and cooking methods.
Bottom line? As restaurants across the country post caloric information on the web and in their outlets, you can’t always believe what you read. Make sure not to leave your common sense at home when you go out to eat.
- Step 1
Don’t believe the impossible.The main problem with the calorie counts that restaurants provide is that they are difficult to monitor and verify. While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does perform routine inspections, they cannot ensure that all portion sizes are created equal or that the side order of light salad dressing will contain exactly 50 calories.If you walk into your local deli and they claim that their Italian Slammer sandwich (which looks like suspiciously like two pounds of salami between two slices of bread) has only 200 calories, use your common sense. The item they submitted for their menu labeling probably contained much smaller portions.
- Step 2
Dressing and mayo and oil, oh my!The calorie counters in restaurants do not account for the good stuff. For example, in many chain restaurants with dishes highlighted as heart healthy or fewer than 500 calories, the menu item has an asterisk next to the title. The footnote invariably proclaims that the calorie counts do not include cheese, condiments or any dressing or sauce.Cheese is usually 50-100 calories a slice. Dressing and sauce provide at least 20-70 extra calories, with some heavy sauces adding hundreds of calories to your meal. Be mindful about invisible “extras” when perusing a menu.
- Step 3
Bring your playing cards.When you dine out you have to be diligent about eyeballing your meal to ensure you are only eating one serving, especially when some restaurants serve up to four portions in one entrée. Remember these simple guidelines:One serving of meat/poultry/fish: A deck of playing cards
One serving of pasta/potatoes: A computer mouse
One serving of pancakes/waffles: A compact disk in diameter
One serving of cheese: Six dice
One serving of vegetables: A baseball
- Step 4
Eat up when you eat out.When you dine out don’t just drive through at your local fast food joint. Instead, go to an ethnic food restaurant and make your meal a cultural treat as well as a caloric one.Japanese food? Focus on simple rolls and sashimi prepared with salmon, shrimp or eel. Mexican? Order fajitas so you control your own portion size. Italian? Eat a huge salad with heart-healthy olive oil and vinegar and split a pasta dish.
Also, the nicer of a restaurant you visit, the more likely the staff will take your health concerns and menu questions seriously–you have to pay for good service.
- Step 5
Make a plan.Feel free to treat yourself when you go out to eat! The whole reason for the calorie guidelines is so you know when you are consuming a high cal item.When you really want the 1,000-calorie entrée or cake with ice cream and fudge sauce for dessert, you can indulge. Just be mindful. Either plan on exercising enough through the rest of the week to burn the extra calories or enlist the help of your friends or family by asking if anyone would like to split the plate with you.
- Step 6
Talk to the staff.If you are at a fast food restaurant, order small portions and make a joke with your server about how you are watching your waist. Workers at Nathan’s have described to the Gotham Gazette how they occasionally over-serve customers to make sure the client feels they are getting enough bang for their buck from their order.If your server knows you don’t want to be overfed, they are more likely to go easy with the fry scooper. If you are at a sit-down restaurant politely describe that you want your meal cooked with as little fat or oil as possible.
Remember, politeness, patience and humor are key: food servers have a stressful job!
- Step 7
Accept reality.Expect the calorie count at your favorite restaurant to be off by 10 percent, even after you take all the above precautions. Chalk it up to factors out of your control and portion for it by following a healthy eating and exercise plan 90 percent of the time.The extra calories add up a lot slower if you eat out less often–limit yourself to dining out three or four times a week. That way, when you do make it to a restaurant you can enjoy your meal instead of obsessing about the extra calories in the second slice of cheese you just noticed on your sandwich.