When people eat at a fast-food joint they tend to drastically underestimate the amount of calories they’re getting, a new Harvard Medical School survey found. The survey included interviews with more than 3,000 people who ate at six different fast-food chains in 2010 and 2011.
“At least two thirds of all participants underestimated the calorie content of their meals, with about a quarter underestimating the calorie content by at least 500 calories,” Harvard’s Jason Block and colleagues wrote in the British Medical Journal.
On average people thought they were eating 175 fewer calories than they actually were. To put that in perspective, if you overate that much once a day, over the course of a year you’d gain 18 extra pounds!
Ironically, people were more likely to underestimate calories when eating at Subway compared to places like McDonald’s and KFC. Researchers suspect that’s because Subway advertises itself as being a healthy food option, creating a so-called “health halo” effect. This effect leads people to think that foods with healthy labels have fewer calories than they really do, and as a consequence they eat more of them.
While researching his new book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Michael Moss made an interesting discovery: Many of the scientists and executives who create fast food won’t eat it themselves. Why? Because they know how unhealthy it is.
Here’s a telling excerpt from an interview Moss just did with Heathland describing what he found out:
Were you surprised by how many scientists and food company executives avoid their own products?
It was everything from a former top scientist at Kraft saying he used to maintain his weight by jogging, and then he blew out his knee and couldn’t exercise, his solution was to avoid sugar and all caloric drinks, including all the Kool-Aid and sugary drinks that Kraft makes. It ranged from him to the former top scientist at Frito Lay. I spent days at his house going over documents relating to his efforts at Frito Lay to push the company to cut back on salt. He served me plain, cooked oatmeal and raw asparagus for lunch. We toured his kitchen, and he did not have one single processed food product in his cupboards or refrigerator.
The scientists and executives were pretty honest about their roles in creating unhealthy food. Did you get the impression they felt guilty about their products?
One reason they don’t eat their own products, is that they know better. They know about the addictive properties of sugar, salt and fat. As insiders, they know too much. I think a lot of them have come to feel badly. But not blaming themselves necessarily, because the older ones invented a number of these products back in the days when dependency on them was much lower. In the 70s and the 80s for example, we were eating more home cooked meals from scratch and eating more mindfully. As society evolved and we became more dependent on these conveniences, these people came to see their work with real misgivings. The inventor of the Lunchables, Bob Drane, wishes mightily that the nutritional aspects of that product could’ve been made better. He is still hoping it will be made better. They came to have regrets about their work in the context of the health effects their products seem to have that go hand-in-hand with society’s increasing demand of their products.
One reason it’s so hard to lose weight is because it’s so easy to eat way more food than we need, especially when eating out. That’s highlighted by a newly released study that looked at 30,923 menu items from 245 leading restaurant brands in the U.S. It found that 96% of them exceed daily limits for calories, sodium, fat or saturated fat recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
It’s not just fast food places either. In fact, family style restaurants served meals that averaged 271 more calories than fast food meals. One of the most heartbreaking findings was that specialty drinks for kids had more calories, fat and saturated fat than regular drinks on the menu, and the median number of calories in a kids drink was a staggering 430.
The study also found that appetizers were a major source of unneeded calories, averaging an unbelievable 813 per serving. That’s more than most full meals should contain for an average adult!
Being forewarned is forearmed though, and you can take some easy steps to ensure you’re not taking in more energy than you need at your meals:
- Eat half the meal and take the other half to go, saving it for another day
- Drink 2 big glasses of water and eat a small salad before your entree…you’ll eat less and feel more full
- As soon as you feel full, clear the food from in front of you. Most people will eat food in front of them even if they’re not hungry
- Upgrade your meal by asking for salad instead of fries, getting high-calorie condiments like mayo on the side where you can keep track of them better, and drinking water instead of sugar-laden drinks
The bottom line is, restaurants are in the business of selling food that’s profitable to them and not necessarily good for you, so make sure you’re looking out for yourself. In the immortal words of Corporal Hicks: “Stay frosty.”
(Fat Donald image from DonMak)