Kitchen MacGyver: Why Calorie Counts Are Misleading

Calorie counts don't tell the whole story.

Calorie counts are just numbers; they don’t reveal much about the composition of an item.

Written by: Sabrina Grotewold

Sometimes life demands that we adopt a grab-and-go consumption philosophy, and many fast food joints provide nutritional information about their menu items posted on the order board or in printed brochures in each franchise, or this information is accessible online. While posting calorie counts has been a mandate in chain restaurants by individual state governments, federal law may soon require that more restaurants across the country readily disclose this information. Great news for health-conscious, busy athletes who may prefer to squeeze in extra miles on the road or minutes in the gym to preparing all of their—and possibly their family’s—meals at home, right? Not really. Calorie counts are ballpark figures that can be misleading—they do not provide any indication of how heart-healthy, nutritious or endurance-friendly a food, beverage or meal might be. Just because a calorie count may seem high doesn’t necessarily mean the item should be off-limits for athletes, and vice versa—just because a calorie count is low doesn’t mean it’s the best choice for active individuals. Calorie counts are just numbers; they don’t reveal much about the composition of an item. Only the complete ingredients list and understanding of how the food is prepared can reveal how nutritionally valuable a food or meal is.

Further complicating this matter is that some restaurant-provided calorie counts are variable-dependent estimates and, in some cases, flat-out wrong. A study published recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that sit-down chain restaurants were guilty of inaccurate calorie counts more often than fast food establishments. The really bad news: Researchers discovered a trend of the lower-calorie menu items having inaccurate total calories compared to higher calorie dishes. On average, USDA Human Nutrition Research Center scientists at Tufts University found that the lowest calorie items on menus at many national chains contain a 100 calorie discrepancy—that’s 100 calories more than the printed totals.

Study author Susan Roberts revealed that some higher-calorie items ended up having lower-than-reported calorie counts when evaluated in the lab. The study was conducted by sampling the calorie counts of 269 food items at 42 fast food and sit-down restaurant national chains, including McDonald’s, Olive Garden, Outback, and Boston Market in Boston, Indianopolis and Little Rock. A logical explanation for these discrepancies: Food served in sit-down restaurants contains more variables—for example, a cook in Boston may ladle more minestrone into a bowl at the restaurant than the bowl that was originally evaluated, or a salad may contain a heavier sprinkle of croutons, sunflower seeds and shredded cheese than the evaluated sample salad, and so on.

What does this mean for health-conscious athletes? Again, calorie counts are just numbers and they can be very accurate, somewhat accurate or inaccurate. Unless you dine at a chain restaurant with the intention of wolfing a cheeseburger and fries, stick to the common-sense nutrition basics you follow when grocery shopping or preparing foods at home: Grilled, poached, boiled, steamed or raw are often the healthiest ways to prepare food; try to consume sauces and dressings sparingly; and stick to the following healthy plate composition for athletes: half fruits and/or vegetables, one-third carbs (preferably whole grains, depending on when your next workout is) and one-third protein.

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