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You Can't Budget Your Calories If You Don't Know The (Accurate) Costs

I remember the moments very well when I came face to face with the reality that what we are served in restaurants packs a lot more punch and paunch than many of us realize. And a couple of research papers today reminded me why this is so important.

There I was a couple of years ago, standing at a well-known fast food restaurant in LaGuardia airport after a long day of meetings, trying to find something reasonable to eat before getting on the flight home. And displayed on the sign in front of me were the calorie counts of the various choices that were available. Although several were appetizing, none (if I recall correctly, even the salad) was reasonable in terms of the calorie count. I was glad to see the calories, but dismayed at the information.

But my "light bulb moment" came when I was having dinner with some of my family at a well-known chain restaurant (which is well known for its eponymous dessert) outside of Washington DC reading the menu and finding few choices under 1000 calories-and desserts that in some instances topped a couple of thousand calories.  I was desperate and distraught, but had to cave and get something-no matter what the calorie cost was going to be.

Many of us are about to have similar experiences, as restaurant chains nationwide are going to start posting the calorie count of their menu items.  It happens to be a proven way to make people aware of what they are eating, and hopefully will begin to address our nationwide obesity epidemic (more about that later). I suspect it is going to be a rude awakening for many of us when we come face to face with the calorie cost of that burger and fries.

An article in today's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association drives home the point that those stated calorie counts are not always accurate. So, what you think you are getting for breakfast, lunch or dinner may in fact have more (and in some cases, fewer) calories than what is posted on the menu. This is bound to make our journey to health all the more difficult.

The researchers took a sample of various meals from a number of nationwide chains in different parts of the country. They then analyzed those food portions to see if the calories listed on the menu or available from other sources such as restaurant websites in fact accurately portrayed the number of calories contained in the actual portion served in the restaurant.

Overall, when looking at total averages of everything, the stated calories matched up pretty well to the actual calories. However, 19% of the individually tested foods had at least 100 more calories than stated. The researchers even found one side dish that had 1000 calories more than what the dish was supposed to have according to the restaurant's information. 40% of the tested foods had at least 10 calories more per portion than stated. On the "good" side, 52% had at least 10 calories lower than the claimed amount.

One interesting finding in the "sit down" restaurant category was the observation that the lower the stated calorie content the greater the chances that the actual calorie count was higher. This was particularly true for portions that were supposed to be 625 calories and lower. That happens to be the place where many diet-conscious patrons go on the menu to get something that won't help pack on the pounds, so the discrepancy there is especially problematic.

For those foods on the top 10 list of this study (the 10% of the tested foods that had the highest difference between tested and stated calories), the actual difference was about 289 calories per portion. On second testing to confirm that finding, the actual number was 258 calories.

Why all the fuss over a couple of calories here and a couple of calories there? What difference does it really make?

Consider some of these facts, as highlighted in the article and an editorial that appeared in the same journal:

A pound of fat contains about 3500 calories. If you reduce your intake 500 calories a day, you will lose a pound a week. On the other hand, as noted in the original article, if you eat just 100 calories more a day than your body needs (that would be a reasonably sized apple or perhaps a cookie), you will gain approximately 10 to 30 pounds a year.In the United States, from 1970 through 2008, we spent 42% less money on eating food at home, and 26% more eating away from home. 30% of our calories today come from snacks, desserts and pizza, while for young people between the ages of 14 to 18, 40% of their calories come from these same foods. And as you might guess, desserts, carbohydrate-rich foods and salads were the foods that had the highest differences between what was stated on the menu or the website and what was actually contained in the foods tested.

So what appears to be a small difference over time can add up to big pounds.  And as a nation, we are well into the "big pounds" game, as reflected in the second piece of research that garnered a good deal of media attention today.

Every year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looks at the percentage of people in the United States who are overweight and obese. And each year the number goes up and up and up. 

For 2010, the CDC has reported that 25% of the residents in 36 states were obese. Not just overweight, but obese. In many states-especially in the South-over 30% of the residents are obese. The leader was Mississippi where slightly more than one out of every three people is obese. Colorado was at the lower end of the list with 21%--or one out of five people-obese. But even the winner was a loser because in the past Colorado had far fewer obese people than was the case in 2010.

This is no idle discussion, especially as we look into the future.

Obesity impacts our lives and the length of our days. Cancer, heart disease, stroke, blood pressure and a number of other conditions are impacted by overweight and obesity. As we age, the impact of being overweight and obesity limits our mobility, just when we are looking forward to spending more time with our families and having the freedom to do more of the things we want to do.

I have become more and more convinced over time that although we can make the "big splash" by losing lots of weight over a relatively short period of time, it is the 100 calories here and 100 calories there that add up to big differences. 100 extra calories a day means one extra pound a month, 12 extra pounds a year. And who stops at just 100 extra calories?

As I have written many times before, this is a battle I know personally. It is difficult, frequently not successful, and full of traps.

One of the traps we don't need, however, is inaccurate information from those who are supposed to be telling us the caloric content of the foods we eat. As this research paper suggests, those restaurants who serve us more and more frequently need to do a better job of telling us exactly what is in the food we eat-just as they tell us accurately how much we will have to pay for it at the cash register.

One final thought, from the editorial in JAMA, in the words of the author:

"Just as balancing a budget can prevent debt, balancing caloric intake with output can prevent added pounds. However, US residents seem to be struggling with both balancing acts. New, innovative, and effective approaches to teaching about energy balance and calorie control are greatly needed."

So, the lesson is that just like "dollars in, dollars out" is important in our financial lives, so is "calories in, calories out" in helping us understand what makes us the way we are. We are doomed to failure if we don't have that basic accurate information and understanding about the calories we consume and spend in our daily activities.  It's time to get it right.



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