How I Use Calories on the Menu

Yesterday, at a rest stop in New Jersey, standing in the combined line for Cinnabon, Popeyes and others, waiting to pay for the blueberry-granola-and (un)real yogurt that I always get, I spied a “MiniBon” roll and mentioned that, calorie-wise, it was better than the classic. (The Cinnabon Classic has 880 calories, while the Minibon has 350 calories per roll.)  My daughter and the woman standing ahead of me, both in their 20s and of slim/normal weight, admitted they had no idea of the number of calories they need. Neither one seemed the worse for the lack of information, but I gave them a tiny lesson on calories (and told them never to “diet.”)

Later that night, I read this on the Intuitive Eaters Professionals Group on Linked-In:
“The other day I went to a restaurant for lunch with friends and was surprised to see calorie counts next to each menu item. My friends, both fairly health conscious “normal” eaters, didn’t seem to mind, but did remark on the counts. I was bothered because I found that the counts drew me away from eating intuitively and back to my days, half a lifetime ago, of dieting. I had to force myself not to look at them and then was okay. My question is: Are menu item calorie counts helpful or not? Might they be useful for different populations, i.e., okay for “normal” eaters who want to eat more nutritiously but not so much for anyone who leans toward dis-regulated eating?”

Calories on the Menu

Expect to see calories on the menu in restaurants with 20 or more outlets as part of the Affordable Care Act upheld by the Supreme Court last week. Restaurants and movie theaters must post calorie information on menus, menu boards, and drive through displays, and provide written information about total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, sugars, dietary fiber, and protein upon request.

For people like my daughter and the woman in line, the information will be meaningless, but for others, it may be extremely informative or downright disconcerting. As a longtime registered dietitian, intuitive eating practitioner, and former dieter over thirty years ago, I think a “calorie information free menu” should be available to anyone upon request, no questions asked. (Heaven forbid the Affordable Care Act returns to the Supreme Court for alleged “actual harm” coming from calories on the menu!) Anyway, I live in New York City where calories have been on the menu since 2008. Real-world studies show that, as a public health intervention, it has only a modest reduction or no effect in the calories purchased by customers. In time, the issue could be a moot point.

For what it’s worth, this is what I told my daughter and the woman in line about how I approach calories on the menu:

  • Women need about 2,000 calories a day and men need around 2,400.*
  • When the calorie count is high – say greater than 20% of the daily total or 400 calories – look askance
  • Decide if the extra calories are from too much wholesome food or from “empty calories” full of added sugar and/or animal fats but with negligible nutrients.
  • For wholesome food, I split the serving with my companion or carry away half, and for empty calories, I decide if I love it enough and have to have it right then. (Luckily, I’m not impulsive.) If yes, then I have it; if no, then I skip it. But if I were to feel guilty or otherwise, awful, I’d ask why and think of it as a growth opportunity.

Righteous indignation seems to fuels me. You can’t get me to eat most of the crap sold in American chain restaurants. I don’t value filling my body with junkie food. I am attracted to fresh food well prepared, mostly by me. Usually, I’m sated at don’t care about dessert. If I really want dessert, then I eat it only a little at the meal.

Your thoughts: What do you think about calories on the menu?

*To find your calorie requirements, use this chart from the government or use a calculator fromany one of the online diet websites.

4 thoughts on “How I Use Calories on the Menu

  1. My article is quoted “in 5 Things to Know About the New Food Labeling Laws” at Diets In Review. (See “ping back” above.)

    “For even more education on the subject, our resident nutrition expert, Mary Hartley, RD, wrote a great blog on how to use calories on the menu.”

    Thanks DIR!

  2. Pingback: 5 Things to Know About the New Food Labeling Laws

  3. Hi,
    Thank you for commenting! Re: brain dead individuals, you know, lots of people don’t read about nutrition – some seem better off for it and others do not – and people who have been chronic dieters have almost a PTSD reaction to “diet” information. I am on Twitter (@MaryHartleyRD) and Facebook (at Mary Hartley RD) and I am the consulting dietitian at DietsInReview.com, where I occasionally write. When I was with CalorieCount.com, I answered over 2,000 questions from members at “Ask Mary” under the “Advice” tab. Really, I precipitate your visit. Take care.
    Mary

  4. I hardly leave a response, but after reading a few of the remarks here How I Approach Calories on the Menu | Ask Mary RD. I actually do have 2 questions for you if you do not mind. Could it be just me or does it give the impression like some of these remarks come across like they are coming from brain dead individuals? 😛 And, if you are posting on additional sites, I’d like to follow anything new you have to post. Would you list of every one of all your social networking sites like your twitter feed, Facebook page or linkedin profile?

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