Can You Trust the Calories Listed by Restaurants?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Balancing energy intake with energy expenditure is a key to successful weight management. Nutrition tools like databases, trackers, and fact labels can help. However, the help they provide is limited by the accuracy of the information each tool includes.

The same is true with calorie information on restaurant menus. The nutrition calculations are derived from a variety of sources. Restaurants frequently use laboratory testing, published resource information, and food supplier information to help them calculate estimated nutrition information. If the source information is not accurate, the inaccuracy will be handed down and perhaps multiplied. Tufts University researchers tested meals from several familiar chain restaurants. The tested meals were eighteen percent higher in calories on average than the listed menu information. The scariest part of their findings to me was the wide range of variation between actual calorie content and reported content. Some meals were 36 percent lower than the restaurant calculation. For most of us, that is an error in our favor that doesn't bother us too much. Others were 200 percent higher than the reported calorie information. That variation can make a large impact that is more unsettling.

Some people have ordered their lifestyle so that eating away from home isn't something they do often. Others of us eat away from home from time to time for a variety of reasons. When we do, we rely on helpful recommendations to plan before we go in order to successfully navigate the menu for the healthiest choices. We also try to apply many of the healthy eating habits we have learned as well. Unfortunately, we also trust in the nutrition information provided for the restaurant we are visiting. Here are some things to consider when reviewing and relying on menu nutrition information while dining away from home.

  • It is important to remember the nutrition information provided is not automatically representative of the meal you are served. The calculation for your selection is an estimate based on a standardized recipe tested in a lab, evaluated using industry standard software or published resources. The numbers are subject to a variety of federal rounding and regulation rules that may also alter the results reported. Remembering that the number provided is an estimate and not an exact total can help you fit the meal into your daily calorie and nutrition range. It is important not to be so caught up in the numbers that you lose sight of other aspects of the dining experience and intuitive eating cues.
  • Issues with portion control do not just happen at home. When a cook or chef plates your meal, their ability to control your portion will factor in to the total calories of your meal. For example, an institutional number eight scoop provides a one half cup serving. That is only if the scoop contents were level. The scoop contents can easily become rounded and vary from person to person especially in a frantic kitchen. Increased portion sizes mean increased overall calorie contributions. Customized entrée items such as sandwiches or wraps also increase the opportunity for preparation technique and portion errors. Learning how to recognize appropriate portion sizes can enhance your ability to manage the intake of the meal provided. If you notice there is too much mayo or salad dressing or a portion that is too large, make the necessary adjustments to your serving. Take the rest home to create a snack or meal addition.
  • In an attempt to be environmentally supportive, some restaurants are using local food sources especially fresh produce. It is important to remember that nutritional information for produce are typically based on overall averages. Totals naturally include a variation related to growing season and regional farming practices. Since it is important to include fruits and vegetables into your diet each day, this is one calorie count variation you should not worry a great deal about. Vegetables with their low calorie and high nutrition content would be the best cause of having a higher calorie intake than the menu reported.
If your lifestyle choices do not include eating away from home, these concerns will not influence your weight management success. For those of us that enjoy eating away from home or who have not yet mastered meal management strategies, these are things that must be kept in mind when selecting food away from home.

The Bottom Line

More and more restaurants have calorie and nutrition information printed on menus and display boards. It is important to remember there are a variety of factors that go in to creating the displayed calculations. Using the numbers provided as an estimate instead of an exact number will help you stay on track while not being overly concerned by potential hidden errors. Focusing on and over analyzing the menu nutrition information can cause you to lose sight of the bigger picture. Estimating your needs and balancing your intake is more of an art than a science. Remembering this truth while eating within your recommended calorie range and listening to your body will allow you to stay on track with your weight goals. (Need more help eating right on the go? Check out our comprehensive Dining Out Guide and 10 diet friendly restaurants.)

Are you surprised to learn the number on the menu or display board at your favorite restaurant may not be accurate? If you eat out, does this knowledge change anything for you in your attempt to maintain your weight goals?

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ERIN_POSCH 10/2/2020
thanks for sharing Report
GRALAN 5/13/2020
I learned this lesson back in the 70s, when I learned that a serving size for a vending machine candy (I won't name it, but its abbreviation is ___ snicker-snicker-guffaw) was 2/3rds of a bar. That was industrial disingenuous mockery of the health concerns and regulations which has continued to this day.

I also had it reinforced by looking at the "Nutritional" data provided on SparkRecipes. Sad.

I continue to proceed with hope. Report
I am not surprised to see that the nutrition on restaurant menus may not be accurate. Although 18% can mean a lot when you are trying to lose weight and stay within a certain calorie range. This information will make me think before I order. Preplanning is the key to eating out. Thanks for sharing this article. Report
Great information with which to be armed! Report
Thanks for sharing Report
Thanks for sharing Report
Thanks for sharing Report
We frequently need to make substitutions or request that an ingredient be left out (like pork or shellfish), or sometimes I ask for an extra ingredient that isn't usually included - so those changes will also impact the bottom line (calorie count OR my pants size, either way, ha!). Report
Thanks for sharing Report
I generally just choose sensibly anyways. Report
I have never paid attention to restaurant calorie counts. Instead, I rely on common sense: ordering broiled rather than fried fish, vinaigrette vs. creamy dressings, vegetable sides rather than fries, etc. But the number one thing to remember is that, in general, restaurant food is NOT diet food! On top of that, it's meant to be an occasional treat, not daily or weekly fare. If I know I'm going out to dinner, I just eat much less the rest of the day (and plan to take about half my meal home with me in a "doggy bag.") Report
Good to know! Report
We eat out quite a bit, so I am hoping that the nutritional information provided is mostly reliable. I do try to choose the lower calorie, healthier items so at least with the info given, I tend to make better choices. Report
Hmm, I've heard the calories listed in restaurants is off by 8% or more. Report
I don't expect every restaurant meal or frozen meal, or even any homemade meal to be exact, but I do appreciate having the information provided as a guideline.

It's impossible for any restaurant to give each serving of each food each time EXACTLY the same....but a general guideline based on the ingredients helps me make better choices.

Even at home unless you prepare exactly one serving and weigh each ingredient perfectly you can have a slight serving of soup might have a few more veggies and be "lighter" while one serving might have a few extra noodles and/or pieces of meat and have a few more calories. Report
I'm not surprised. I think Spark People has opened my eyes about many foods. I've noticed that there are many foods I am eating less or have stopped eating. Report
Not surprised. But, we can use these numbers to help select healthier, less calorie loaded choices when dining out. Report
I usually prefer to roughly "recreate" restaurant dishes via the component ingredients for the nutrition tracker, instead of relying on what the restaurant says. There are only a few places whose information I trust to be reasonably close (and it's always just an estimate, anyway!)

I also really dislike the nebulous qualification "calories per serving". "One serving" means exactly NOTHING - give me actual sizes and amounts (even weight is better than nothing, though I don't carry a kitchen scale around!), and then I can adjust if a place appears to to be "generous" or "skimpy". Report
I do appreciate that some restaurants at least try to give us nutritional information. Ever since we are retired we do not eat out as often as we did before. I try to stay away from breaded items, and mostly succeed. I generally have a salad before my meal with the dressing on the side, most of which is still there when I am finished eating. Report
I have to admit that while I'm not as surprised as I thought I would be, I also have to admit to being disappointed. I go out of town twice a month and have to stay in a room with no refrigerator or cooking facilities. I have no choice but to eat in a restaurant. It would help if we could get some standardization, but I also understand (from having worked in and around food service all my life) that this may be an unrealistic request.

The best we can do is simply the best we can do. Maybe cut down on how much of the actual meal you eat, recognize portion sizes,and make special requests. Trust me...if a business wants you back, they WILL do their best to accommodate your needs!

I wonder if their relative calorie counts are at least accurate, so by choosing their lower ones you are making better choices. I do think that intuitive eating thing makes sense, and I am getting better at it. But unfortunately I still make some big mistakes. Report
Why would anybody be surprised? Any good cook knows that sometimes you need to modify recipes - a little butter here, more sugar, etc... frankly, I'd be scared if the counts were exact! Report
I've always suspected restaurant calorie information was inaccurate, this proves it. That is why ever since I started Sparkpeople, I only eat out sparingly. Too many unknowns when eating out. Report
I know the portions when we out are huge. I often remark to my husband how big they are. Even so, I find myself eating it all. Could be due to the fact that we grew up to eat what we were given and because most of the time it just tastes good. I have realized that I have to change my habits and that is slowly becoming part of my lifestyle. I enjoy the experience but do not like the toll on my wallet. Eating at home is so much better for you and cheaper. Thanks SparkPeople. Report
It doesn't really surprise me. We don't eat out as much as we used to , nor do we do take out very often. But, I still do like eating out with friends from time to time. But, I do try to go with the healthiest choices the resteraunt offers. Report
Not surprised and never expected perfection on calory counting when eating out. I still take the lowest available and deduct at least 50% if I count calories. Mostly I just let go - of counting and take it as a special occasion. It is nice to be out in company and not overeat and feel full and bloated afterwards. Water helps a lot and fills . Report
I'm not surpeised the calorie count is off. When I do eat out. which is rarely, I try to order wisely and do the calorie count in my head. Report
Not at all but I still try to order from the part of menus that are listed as healthy and come in at bwt 400 - 600 cals. Then order water to drink and keep under my cal. goal for the day by at least 300 calories for the possible errors at the restaurant Report
oh, I am not surprised at all!
what I am surprised about, is how crazy it all got: to please indulgent and ignorant about the dangers of weight gain people all those restaurants keep making the portions bigger and the food more creamy, buttery, cheesy, salty, sweet....

I am just so happy every time I see some restaurants at least trying to offer healthier choices and actually put calorie count on the menu.
Unlike Fridays, for example, that keeps the nutritional information of their criminally calorious stuff top secret! Report
I now ask a lot of questions about the food I'm ordering. I have to say we have cut down on going out to restaurants because we can't trust their information. Report
I'm not surprised at all. I already don't trust what they put in the food, so I don't eat out often. When I do eat out I usually pick something like a buffet with a huge salad bar and I can dish out what I want myself. Report
When you think about it, variation should not be a surprise. Food doesn't come in convenient, precisely measured cubes, and some of us are more heavy-handed with the extras than others when preparing food. Usually, when I go to restaurants, I divide my food into smaller portions before I even start eating. That way, I can relax and enjoy the dining experience without worrying about overeating. Report
i have in the past in fast food resturant and sometimes i would see the supervisor pull out a scale to see how much the end product weighted to showw them if they were putting on to much or not enough of something as employee was training. I have been reading some article on posting calories in resturants but that is on perfect weight etc of everything plus or minus. I know that me eyeballing whats right in a hurry is not going to be right so in my thoughts is that it is just a ball park figure to go by Report
I shouldn't be shocked, but it doesn't make me any less angry to read it. What is the point of providing nutrition information if it's grossly inaccurate. Report
I agree with most comments. Everything should be viewed as a guideline. If I go out to eat, I try to deep my previous daily calorie intake low so that I can compensate for it.
i only trust what i do measure myself with my own scale.!!! Report
I treat the calories as guidelines, not gospel. I also don't eat at fast food restaurants. (Ironically, since ff places have tighter quality controls, they probably vary less than other restaurants). I usually order from the lite menu, so even a 200% overage won't hurt that much. Report
It doesn't change anything, really.
When I started this, I wanted to lose weight and still be "normal". My mom and I frequently eat out at restaurants and I didn't want her to think something was wrong if I I have changed very little and very slowly.
I never even measure my food at home! If I want skim milk, I usually drink it out of the carton (I am the only one who drinks skim milk anyway) I never measure out my meats, soups, fruits or veggies. I just count calories based on the amount I think I ate. If I drink some milk that is 1 serving. If I had a piece of fish, that is one serving...broccoli is 1 serving.
And I still eat at restaurants. My mom LOVES eating Chinese food so we go to that buffet alot. I get the shrimp and broccoli stir fry and I like the sauteed green beans. Sometimes we eat at Hosss buffet too. I usually make a healthy salad, have some chili and I pick 1-2 things off of the dessert bar that I want. That might be a brownie, or some ice cream. But I can't have more than 3 a brownie, 2 cookies and ice cream...I have to choose between things.
Sometimes as a family we eat at a pizza place and I order what I want...
Despite all of this I have lost weight. If I had cut out restaurant food, and made myself measure my food, I would have probably given up on the first week... Report
After years of working in many different restaurants I can tell you this- Do NOT believe the calorie counts! They will never be accurate! Report
I'm sure there are even times where our estimates of the calories in meals that we've prepared ourselves are off. I shaved 50 calories off the top of my suggested range to account for some of the inaccuracies, and if I eat out, I always try to leave room at the top end of my range. Report
This is very frustrating for me because I travel for work. I do try to get a hotel room with a microwave and fridge so I can be sure of breakfast and lunch. Dinner though is tough. By the time dinner rolls around I am tired and want to sit down and be served. I rely on the nutritional information I restaurant gives out to make a choice that fits with my nutritional goals. Report
i dont even trust the calories posted on food labels to be 100 percent accurate...but, we have to just do the best we can, when you are dealing with prepared food, you also have to factor in oil, butter, etc. Report
I am a little surprised by the larger differences. I think that as a ballpark estimate, it is at least some help. If I choose a meal with a listing of 500 calories vs one listed at 1000 calories, even if it is 200 calories more, it is still a lot less than the other choice. Because I don't eat out very often, I don't worry about it. A couple hundred extra calories aren't going to ruin my whole plan. But I do think that people who eat out a lot and rely on these things shouldn't be surprised by the weight gain. We all still need to take personal responsibility for our choices. Report
I called a restaurant once to ask for nutr info and they said they don't provide it b/c there are too many variables such as who is working, preparation techniques, etc, that affect the value. I believe it was Buffalo Wild Wings I was asking b/c I LOVE their food. Report
As a former restaurant cook, I am not at all surprised. All cooks serve differently and if you have four cooks serve up the same meal, you'd have four different calorie amounts. In the hurried setting of getting out multiple meals at a time you just don't have the time to weigh and measure to make sure that everything is at the proper amount. Most of the food is "eye measured" and we all know how inaccurate that can be!!

I had read about this in the book Cook This Not That and when I read it I was pretty surprised. I live in New York and pretty much everywhere you go the calories are next to the meals and dishes they have to order whether it be a fast food restaurant or a sit down restuarant and I kind of relied on the calories that the menus show. It even said in the book that in Applebee's weight watchers menu lab tests showed that in certain dishes the calories were way more than what the menu was actually showing.

Ty for these tips and I will definitely keep them in mind cause I am one of those people who like to go out from time to time and now that I know I cant 100% rely on what the menu shows for the calorie count, I can be a little more aware of what I am eating and make decisions to help me eat healthy! Report
I'm not surprised, but I'm not going to change my going out to eat eating habits because of it either. I'm already generally picking the lowest amount of calories on the menu, and I have given myself a range of calories per day large enough to make up those extra calories, fat, carbs, so on and so forth.

We don't go out to eat that often anyway anymore, but it I still will most likely stick to my status quo. Report
It always seems smart to OVERestimate the calories/ content of food and UNDERestimate kc burned through exercise. Report
I'm not surprised--as the article points out, there are so many variables.

I think I'd prefer a list of ingredients like the labels on grocery items; that way I would be able to 'guesstimate' on my own--AND be more able to recognize danger signals--type of fat used, place of sodium on the list, that sort of thing.

I rarely eat out, and when I do I try to go to places where I am familiar with the menu (and its effects on me!). Used to really enjoy it, but even before I joined SP, I recognized that the direction of restaurant food presentation had changed A LOT from when I was in college. (There were so many fewer 'biggie size' options, fewer 'all you can eat' offerings, and the plates were smaller). Report