Restaurant calorie counts not always accurate

Dieters beware: Offerings at popular restaurants may have more calories than what’s stated on menus or company websites.

A team of scientists purchased items from 42 fast-food and sit-down eateries in Indiana, Arkansas and Massachusetts, then measured the calories they contained. The list of stops on their calorie-busting tour included Burger King, Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse, McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Chuck E. Cheese’s.

Only 7% of the 269 foods tested were within 10 calories of what the restaurants stated, the scientists found. And almost 20% packed at least 100 more calories than what was indicated. Over the course of a year, an extra 100 calories daily can add up to 10 to 15 pounds, said study lead author Susan Roberts, a senior scientist at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University.

The biggest discrepancies occurred at sit-down restaurants, where the stated calorie information and what the researchers measured was off by an average of 225 calories, according to the study, which was published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. At fast-food restaurants, the average discrepancy was 134 calories per menu item.


“Restaurant food is hand-prepared, which can create some variation,” said Joy Dubost, director of nutrition and healthy living at the Washington-based National Restaurant Assn., a trade group.

The most variable foods included those that dieters are more likely to choose, such as an order of three pieces of dark chicken meat at Boston Market — listed as 358 calories but packing more than 500 in the study — and the cranberry pecan chicken salad at the Midwestern restaurant chain Bob Evans, listed as 841 calories but weighing in at over 1,100 calories — more than half of what an average adult should eat in a day.

This is especially concerning for people trying to control their weight, said Kelly Brownell, director of the Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, who was not involved in the study.

The researchers later repurchased and retested 13 of the 17 menu selections with the greatest calorie discrepancies,and found that the items were often repeat offenders. For example, Chipotle Mexican Grill’s burrito bowl, which is supposed to be 454 calories, was 703 calories on one occasion and 567 on the second. The 17 foods had more than 250 extra calories on average than what was stated.

It’s too early to tell whether calorie information affects what types of foods people purchase, let alone obesity rates, experts said. A 2010 study showed that parents used calorie information to choose more healthful foods for their children — but not themselves.

In New York City, Starbucks customers ordered 6% fewer calories after menu labeling laws went into effect in 2008, according to another 2010 study.

Restaurant food accounts for 35% of the calories Americans eat today, the authors noted.

“This may be a word of caution that people are always better off eating at home,” said Susan Algert, a registered dietician at the University of California Cooperative Extension in Davis.