Your Health

Study: Restaurant Calorie Counts Higher Than Advertised

If your New Year started with a resolution to lose weight, you might want to be especially careful about chain-restaurant food.

A slice of white toast

Counting calories isn't always as plain as toast. iStockphoto.com hide caption

itoggle caption iStockphoto.com

Researchers tested some common fast-food and casual-dining fare and found the actual calories averaged 18 percent higher than the official counts provided by the restaurants. Many of the items were just the sort that you might choose as part of a diet to lose weight.

That's just under the 20 percent limit for error permitted by the Food and Drug Administration. But a few items that were way off the mark lifted the average and showed that you can't always believe the calorie estimates your read.

Take, for instance, a serving of plain, dry toast from a Denny's somewhere around Boston that the lab found had 283 calories, 192 percent more than the 97 figure from the restaurant chain. The results appear in the current issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

For more info, we e-mailed, Tufts University's Dr. Susan Roberts, senior researcher on the study.

First off, we asked, why should we put any, er, weight, in the findings since the statistical fine print said they didn't pass a standard test for significance. Well, she wrote, some foods "were hugely higher [in calories] than they reported, others were somewhat lower." So, yes, on average, you might not do so badly, but you really couldn't be sure if you were winning or losing.

Bottom line: "On an individual level I think for now it is wise to assume that calorie postings are not accurate and you may get more calories than you think!" Roberts wrote.

She also told us this was a preliminary study and that she and her colleagues are embarking on a larger study to "pinpoint types of foods that are unreliable" as well as the restaurants that might not be doing such a good job.

But for now, if you're really looking to lose weight by counting calories, order a water. Just to be safe. We're pretty sure that'll be close to zero, wherever you find it.

Update: Denny's said in an e-mail some variations in calorie counts can occur based on portion sizes and regional differences in food suppliers. On some specific foods measured in the study, Denny's says the researchers may have made errors. The slice of white toast measured was 2 1/2 times the size of the usual portion, Denny's dietitian Margaret Grant wrote.

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