Harley Pasternak is a celebrity trainer and nutrition expert who has worked with stars from Halle Berry and Lady Gaga to Robert Pattinson and Robert Downey Jr. He’s also a New York Times best-selling author, with titles including The Body Reset Diet and The 5-Factor Diet. His new book 5 Pounds is out now. Tweet him @harleypasternak.
Food consumed outside the home accounts for about one-third of Americans’ total caloric intake and almost half of our food costs. That makes it even more difficult to track what – and how much – we’re eating. As part of the Affordable Care Act, all chain restaurants and other prepared food vendors must include calorie counts on menus by December 2016.
Many restaurants, including 66 of the largest chains, already provide calorie information. How has that worked out? At first glance, it appears to be effective. A study comparing the average calorie count of menu items in places that provide nutritional information found it was on average 139 calories lower than places that don’t. But unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily reflect improvements in the behavior of customers.
New York City has been in the forefront of the movement to post calorie counts. Beginning in 2008, the city began to gradually phase in regulations requiring restaurant and takeout chains to list calorie and other nutritional information on menus. Initially, according to a study published late in 2015, the average customer at stores with calories posted ordered lower-calorie items than did customers at eating places that did not post them. However, with each successive year, the impact lessened.
Eating behavior is fraught will all sorts of issues. It’s arguable that when people eat out, even at fast food chains, they want to relax and not worry about whether what they’re ordering is fattening. Or they may figure they might get as much food as they can for the money they’re shelling out. Or maybe they’re taking leftovers from large portions home for another meal. Or their good intentions may simply fly out the window when they inhale the aroma of meat and fat on the grill.
What Does Work?
Two approaches to dealing with customers at chain restaurants have had some positive results. In one case, researchers had restaurant servers in a Chinese restaurant ask customers if they would like to downsize one or more of three starchy sides. Up to a third of the customers took up the server on this offer. Overall, the change resulted in an average decrease of 200 calories the meal. It’s difficult to imagine the major burger chains taking this approach since their whole marketing thrust is more food for less money.
Another study looked at the impact of healthier items on the children’s menu of the regional chain restaurant Silver Diner, which began to offer healthier sides for kids in 2012. Initially, the program got off to a slow start but recently 75–76 percent of the kids, or their parents, opted for these choices. If we can get children in the habit of eating healthier meals early, there’s hope that the incidence of overweight adults will drop. The fact that the incidence of childhood obesity among preschool kids is down significantly from a decade ago is a hopeful sign.
It’s Not Just the Calories
Eating healthy isn’t just a matter of calories, as I stress in my recent book 5 Pounds: The Breakthrough 5-Day Plan to Jump-Start Rapid Weight Loss (and Never Gain It Back!). My focus is on portion control, although this clearly impacts calorie intake. If you do or want to track your calorie intake, you’ll probably acknowledge that it’s difficult or at least time-consuming to do so. It’s also often imprecise. So whether you’re a hardcore calorie counter or just want to know if a salad that sounds healthy is actually a calorie bomb, you’ll agree that posting calories on menus and/or boards is a good idea. However, also keep an eye on the info on the content of protein, fat, fiber, sodium and other nutrients.
Electronic Help Aplenty
Despite the mixed results on posting calorie counts published in research papers, if you are personally committed to watching your weight and occasionally or regularly eat out at chain restaurants, there’s no need to wait for the upcoming law. In addition to scoping out the calories and other nutritional info on menus that already post them, there are other ways to get up to speed before ordering a meal — or a beverage.
Go online to the chain’s site — most of the bigger companies have them — where you’ll often find downloadable PDFs packed with nutritional data on all or the most popular menu options. Many of the bigger chains also have smartphone apps with similar content. Some let you see the calorie impact as you add or subtract sides. Others provide a list of lower calorie items. Here are some examples of the information offering at three of the larger chains:
- McDonalds.Download the nutrition facts for the most popular items on the McDonald’s menu. The Full Menu Explorer gives calorie counts and detailed nutritional information on all items. Another download lists menu choices under 400 calories. (Do note the following message in very small type: Does not include sauces, salad dressings, custom orders and additional condiments.)
- Burger King. Yes, you can have it your way. A downloadable PDF, as well as a Burger King app for your smartphone lets you easily see, for example, that ordering a Whopper Jr. without mayo cuts out 80 calories, but adding a slice of cheese ups the count to by 40 calories.
- Arby’s. In addition to calorie counts and other nutritional data, the chain’s 8-page downloadable PDF lists all menu items alerts those sensitive or allergic to the presence of such ingredients as wheat, soy, milk, eggs, and tree nuts. Arby’s Build-A-Meal feature allows you to see the impact of adding ingredients to its offerings. Say you start with a Fiery Steak Fajita with all the suggested ingredients, which logs in at 560 calories. Eliminate the cheese and you’re down to 480 calories. Keep the cheese but ditch the flatbread and you’re at 320 calories. Or eliminate both and you’re at 240. Add a side chopped salad and you’re back up to 320 calories (before you select a dressing). You can see additional nutritional data changing with each adjustment as well so your meal decision can be influenced by more than just calories.
Even More Info
Several other sites also offer detailed nutritional information worth checking out. Nutrition-Charts, for example, includes about 30 vendors, including the usual suspects, as well as regional chains such as Elevation Burger or Captain D’s seafood restaurants. Fast Food Nation offers similar information for 34 chains. There is some overlap with Nutrition-Charts, but together, you’ll find information for close to 45 chains.
I may be a hopeless optimist, but I wager that with the increasing use of smartphones and increased reliance of online resources, greater availability of nutritional data will influence the meal choices of health and weight-conscious people.