Meals at your neighborhood sandwich shop or your favorite franchise restaurant likely have way more calories than you’d ever need to eat in one sitting.
A whopping 92 percent of popular menu choices exceed the threshold of calories for a normal meal — and that’s not counting drinks, appetizers, or desserts, according to research published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“Restaurants serve only what the very hungriest customer will want,” said food economist and study author William Masters of Tufts University. Their attitude seems to be, “anyone who overeats, it’s on them to feel guilty,” he said.
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The study looked at 364 meals in 123 restaurants in Boston, San Francisco, and Little Rock, Ark., between 2011 and 2014. The worst culprits were restaurants dishing up American, Chinese, or Italian food, all of which which topped out at nearly 1,500 calories for an average dinner entree. The average, moderately active adult needs somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 calories a day, depending on age and gender.
Laboratories used to measure the calories in food by setting it on fire using a piece of equipment called a bomb calorimeter.
A wide range of regulations in recent years has tried to make sure consumers know exactly how many calories they’re chowing down on, part of national and local efforts to curb obesity.
“Those regulations are ultimately a help to people. It’s like why there are speed limits on highways,” Masters said.
It’s unclear, though, whether those rules have actually made a dent in overeating.
New York City, for instance, mandated that fast-food restaurants display calorie counts back in 2008. Researchers surveyed residents and examined cash-register receipts that year and again in 2013 and 2014 and found no change in how often people dined at fast-food restaurants or how many calories they purchased.
Instead of listing calories, some menus flag “healthy options,” like those under 600 calories. Rebecca Krukowski, a psychologist who focuses on weight loss at the University of Tennessee, said she’s not so sure having that information makes a difference.
“Restaurant eating is still viewed as a special occasion,” she said, “so people don’t really want to focus on eating healthy.”
The irony: Americans are eating out more — making those “special treat” meals more common.
If you are keeping track of your consumption, for the most part, you can believe what you read on the menu. A 2011 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that most calorie counts are correct, with a few exceptions. Low-calorie foods tend to be listed 100 calories below their actual contents, and very high-calorie foods tend to be listed as even more caloric than they actually are.
So, how do restaurants measure calories?
The calorie we all know and love is a kilocalorie, or 1,000 calories — the amount of energy needed to raise 1 kilogram of water by just 1 degree Celsius.
Laboratories used to measure the calories in food by setting it on fire using a piece of equipment called a bomb calorimeter, which measured how much energy was produced by sending your bacon cheeseburger up in smoke.
Now, calorie counts are usually measured using what’s known as the Atwater system, which takes stock of how many carbohydrates, proteins, and other components are in a food. Each of those has a caloric value — one gram of fat, for example, is accepted as being nine kilocalories. The sum of those components makes up a calorie count.
The solution to keeping control over those calories — or at least, being aware of how much you’re eating — isn’t simple. But it could start with restaurants mimicking the sizes of home-cooked meals, which tend to have far fewer calories, Masters said. One suggestion: Restaurants could offer half orders of menu items for half price.
“If restaurants want to be more dieter friendly by helping people eat out more often without risking weight gain, the restaurant community as a whole will attract even more customers,” Masters said.