Nutritionists Underestimate Fat, Calories in Restaurant Sized Portions

Even nutritionists can be fooled by the portion sizes of entrees served in restaurants. Over 200 trained dietitians were questioned on their ability to identify how many calories and fat grams existed in five typical restaurant meals. Not one participant accurately calculated all five meals, and some underestimated fat grams by as much as 49 percent and calories by as much as 37 percent.

“The survey proves that even nutrition professionals can’t estimate accurately the calorie and fat content of restaurant meals,” said Dr. Marion Nestle, the chair of New York University’s (NYU) department of nutrition and food studies. “If nutritionists can’t tell what’s in restaurant meals, consumers certainly can’t. Huge restaurant meals are one of the reasons why so many American are gaining weight,” she said.

The findings appeared in a study released by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a non-profit organization which specializes in food and nutrition issues. The research, conducted last fall at an annual meeting of the American Dietetic Association, was conducted by researchers from New York University and the CSPI. Foods analyzed by the dietitians included a hamburger and onion rings, lasagna, grilled chicken Caesar salad, a tuna salad sandwich, a porterhouse steak dinner, and a glass of whole milk. The majority of meals represented typical portions of foods served in a restaurant.

Most guesses were quite off the mark. While the majority of the nutritionists guessed accurately the calories and fat grams contained in the glass of milk, they weren’t so sharp for the rest of the foods. While the burger and rings weighed in at 1,550 calories and 101 grams of fat; the guessed calculations averaged 863 calories and 44 grams of fat.

The tuna salad sandwich was equally hefty: it had 720 calories and 43 fat grams, but the estimations averaged 374 calories and 18 grams of fat. The rest of the foods were also estimated to have far fewer calories and fat grams than they actually did.

“Even highly trained health professionals can have trouble accurately estimating the calories in food because the portions served in restaurants have been steadily expanding,” said Adam Drewnowski, the director of the Human Nutrition Program at the University of Michigan. “People have a mental image of a 200-calorie muffin, but what they’re, in fact, served is a huge 900-calorie muffin.”

“Even well-educated nutrition professionals consistently and substantially underestimate the calorie and fat content of restaurant meals,” the study concluded. To stay mindful of restaurant meals as a consumer, it’s a good idea to ask a server how large a portion actually is. Ask for sauces and dressings on the side. Knowing which foods can add fat — such as butter, sour cream, egg yolks, or cooking oils — can help keep the calorie and fat gram counts in check.