Underestimating The Fast Food Calorie Count
May 24, 2013

Underestimating Fast Food Calorie Counts

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

If you stopped at McDonald´s recently for a meal, how many calories do you think were in that meal? If you´re like most people, you´re probably guessing a little low.

According to a new study in the British Medical Journal, researchers from Harvard University found that people who were interviewed while eating at fast food restaurants typically underestimate the calorie count of the meal in front of them by a large margin.

"At least two-thirds of all participants underestimated the calorie content of their meals, with about a quarter underestimating the calorie content by at least 500 calories," the study authors wrote.

The study included over 1,800 adults, 1,100 adolescents and 330 children at New England locations for McDonald's, Burger King, Subway, KFC, Dunkin' Donuts and Wendy's around dinnertime and lunchtime. Of those restaurants, Subway confused their patrons the most, with the average adult diner underestimating their meal by an average of 350 calories and teen diners underestimating by an about 500 calories.

"These large underestimations show that diners don't really know what they are eating in terms of calorie content, and they need this information to help guide their choices," lead author Dr. Jason Block told USA Today. "They could get it from the company websites or in some other form in the restaurants, such as wall posters, napkins or cups, but soon they'll be directly faced with it when they see it on the restaurant menu boards before they order their meal.”

“Customers can already do this at McDonald's — and in some cities," he added.

The average calorie count for an adult meal in the study was 836 calories, teen meals averaged 756 calories and children ordered 733 calories on average. Adults and children both tended to underestimate their meals by around 175 calories. Teens fared worse, underestimating their purchases by about 250 calories. The study also found that adults with a higher BMI were less likely to underestimate their purchases than their lower BMI counterparts.

The researchers noted that they used calorie counts from each restaurant´s website, meaning the actual food purchased could have varied from those figures. They also interviewed only people who were eating at the restaurant and not drive-through customers.

Over 40 percent of participants said they eat weekly at the restaurant where they were interviewed. At least 20 percent of the adults in the study said they noticed posted nutritional information, but only 5 percent said that it played a role in their meal selection.

The research team also noted that the majority of the people they approached were unwilling to participate in the calorie count study.

On average, a healthy children´s diet includes 1,200 to 2,000 calories per day. The study found the average child´s fast food meal to be around 730 calories, meaning children eating at fast food restaurants are getting about half their calories for the day in one sitting. Those children who eat over the 730-calorie average run a high risk for weight gain and other dietary complications over time.

While recent studies have indicated that fast food consumption in the US is on the decline, others have highlighted that the overall quality of fast food remains abysmal despite promises from a number of leading chain restaurants to improve the healthiness of their menu items.