Yes, Calories Matter

May 8, 2018 in Foodland Chronicles, Weight Management by Joyce Bunderson

Yesterday, May 7, 2018 – now that’s a date that should go down in history. It’s the starting point of an almost 30 year struggle to provide the public with the calories of restaurant foods. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the publisher of the Nutrition Action Newsletter, published an on-line chronology of how it became law. What dedication and work has been done by CSPI!!!

I’m pretty jazzed about it. Now you probably think that a Registered Dietitian with both masters and doctoral degrees would know the calories of food by just looking at the menu item. Dietitians who go frequently might do some estimating and be able to tell you; but I rarely go to these establishments. Dietitians would need portion weight and ingredients, and then have to do some calculations. So how can the general public know the calories? I, for sure, am not keeping up with the general American public, but know, we are consuming about one-third of our calories by eating out in places which do not often give calorie information.

I had an interesting experience just this past week. I had one of those non-stop days. You know, running from one appointment to another. I did not even have time to pack a lunch, which I usually do, if I know I’m going to be gone for so many hours. I dropped by a Wendy’s, in a city where I’ve never been before. I turned around a corner and there was a Wendy’s; so my car turned me into the lot. I knew they had salads in the past, so I thought this would be fine. Since I eat mostly a Mediterranean-style diet, my eyes were rapidly drawn to the Power Mediterranean Chicken Salad. And what to my surprise, did I see? It was that the Power Mediterranean Chicken Salad could be ordered as a half or whole; AND it revealed the calories calculated for both the half (250) and the whole (470). The whole was more calories than I was hoping to consume and the half was slightly less that I was hoping for. I love the entire idea of making calories explicit, so I made the snap decision, based upon the sign, to take the half salad. As you know, you can always get more calories later if you’re hungry; but if you get the 470, there’s nothing easy you can do about it once it’s consumed. I ate the entire half salad, and was surprisingly satisfied. It was great – I wasn’t hungry. I know that I could easily have eaten the entire whole salad, if I had ordered it and would have been oblivious to the fact that it was 470 calories. In all honesty, I wasn’t super excited by the fact that the salad seemed to be all that nutritionally poor iceberg lettuce, but it did save me from having to choose something else – possible worse.

Now, this is where my thoughts were/are. I love the calorie posting. I love being more informed. A dietitian can look at the ingredients list of a menu item like a salad, but we have no idea how much of each ingredient is included. So it’s going to be closer than if we are just guessing about how much of each ingredient is included. I should also mention that I probably would have guessed that there would have been more quinoa in the salad – ‘cause that’s how I would have made it. But I’m speculating here that if I don’t quickly know the calories in foods – you may not either.

Before I leave the Wendy’s example above, I should mention that CSPI’s Nutrition Action Newsletter posted two of Cheesecake Factory’s menu items to illustrate how big the calorie differences can be; the Louisiana Chicken Pasta (2,330) has twice the calories of the Four Cheese Pasta (1,190.) Holly mackerel!!! If you’re anywhere near the average calorie needs for an average person (2000/day) that means if you choose chicken pasta – you overate for the day, all in one meal. If you choose the four-cheese pasta you shot half your calories in one meal. Don’t you think it will be an eye-opener for many? I do. I’m celebrating this new law. The Wendy’s example is a small savings; but other options can be truly significant.

The really extraordinary thing about the new law is that it also applies to convenience stores, movie theaters and the prepared foods and bakery at the grocery stores. Is that cool or what? At this point the small or individually owned restaurants with less than 20 locations are exempt – so too bad about that.

There’s another expected side effect besides educating the public. That’s the chains and markets may decide on ways to trim down the calories in their offerings. Maybe the consumers will see that double bacon cheeseburgers; the quart-sized Big Gulps and super sizing your order can cause lasting problems on the body. Some of them may actually stop ordering them so frequently.

If you end up enjoying the posted calories, you should know that you can also ask for other information like sodium, saturated fat and other nutrients.

For me, yesterday, May 7, 2018, was a red letter day – a day that has the potential to help the consumer.