Saturday, March 03, 2007

Restaurant calorie counts a weighty subject
March 2, 2007

In this time of angst over how fat we’re all getting, the only real villain to this point has been our own gluttonous selves. Nobody’s out there making us eat too much.
And for the most part, that’s true. If people are putting on weight to the point that it’s having an impact on their health, then it’s up to them to do something about that. We have the right to good health care no matter what bad choices we make, but we still need to take personal responsibility for staying healthy.
That said, the astounding figures in a U.S. health organization’s newsletter this month certainly underline the restaurant industry’s significant role in helping North Americans lard on the pounds. We may be eating the stuff, but it’s the industry that has cranked up the calorie count to truly obscene levels.
The restaurants listed in the March newsletter of the Centre for Science in the Public Interest were all American, but I don’t imagine the results would be that different in Canada. The study looked at six mid-range, family-style chain restaurants, and we have no shortage of those.
The dish that clocked in with the highest number of calories was a chicken and broccoli pasta from the Ruby’s chain. The dish had 2,060 calories - almost 100 calories more than what an average woman needs for an entire day. And that’s just one meal.
A burger from a different chain racked up 1,940 calories. No fries, no pop, no nothing - just a burger. The amount of fat in both the burger and the pasta was obscene: 128 grams for the pasta; 141 grams for the burger. That’s the equivalent of almost three-quarters of a cup of butter.
Could you have imagined a single burger incorporating the equivalent amount of fat as three-quarters of a cup of butter? Probably not, and there’s the rub. We simply have no idea of what we’re being served.
Staggering calorie counts are presumably not the norm at most restaurants, and many are downright healthful. But can you say that for sure about the places where you eat? That favourite pasta dish you regularly dig into at your restaurant of choice - have you got any idea how many calories are in it?
The places surveyed by the CSPI all had nutritional breakdowns available for their main dishes. They provided the information to the CSPI for its study, and would likely provide it to me or you as well if we could identify the right people to ask.
But that same information isn’t posted in their restaurants. The eateries said they didn’t want to confuse customers, given that menus change and people tend to customize their meals.
Recognized. But restaurants generally have a stable of steady dishes and sides that they serve. It’s hardly pushy of us to want to know what’s in them. When burgers start tipping the scales with the fat equivalent of three-quarters of a cup of butter, the public has a right to know.
Changing bad habits starts with education. And that means knowing what we’re eating. While nobody would benefit from some nightmarish new regulation requiring restaurants to feature all nutritional breakdowns on every changeable dish they serve, perhaps we could at least require that restaurants post details of their standard fare.
Some of the fast-food places are already posting their nutritional information, and I think it will make a difference over time.
Some of us will walk out of the door forever after being jolted by the calorie counts. Some will stay, but will choose the burger with slightly fewer calories, or the lunch without the fries and the mega-pop. And sure, some will carry on as usual, but at least they won’t be able to claim ignorance when the pounds start piling on.
More and more I see the parallels between our tobacco addiction of days gone by, and our modern-day food compulsions. Nicotine is addictive, but the same can be said of dietary fats and sugars once they’ve been torqued into the raison d’être of our food pursuits. Someone really had to put in effort to create a single burger laden with more fat than a person should be consuming in five days of eating.
So on the one hand, those who eat too much are indeed their own worst enemies. On the other, restaurant fare is in some cases scoring so high on the fat, sugar and salt scale that you have to wonder about the industry’s role as clever alchemist, happy to fuel our feeding frenzy with an overdose of high-calorie flavour.
Eat 500 calories more than you burn every day, and you’ll put on a pound in a week. You’ll need to run for almost an hour every day to burn off those same 500 calories. If you could easily find the details of every dish you ate, you’d almost certainly make some different choices.
Ask the restaurants that you frequent to make those details readily available to everyone. We can’t eat smart without it.

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