Why Calorie Counts on Menus Don’t Tell the Whole Story

At the beginning of May, the FDA began requiring restaurant chains with 20 or more locations to list calorie counts on their menus. This information can be helpful—especially if your doctor or dietitian recommends that you count calories or set a calorie limit for you (remember, everyone’s body requires a different amount of calories). However, for many of us, focusing too much on calories can make us forget that food provides a lot more than just that number!

For example, a mixed-greens salad with black beans, avocado, breaded chicken, and tortilla strips with a creamy chipotle dressing might have 900 calories listed. Meanwhile, the cheeseburger with a small order of fries says it only has 700 calories.

If we ONLY focused on calories, then the burger seems like a better choice. However, a cheeseburger contains a significant amount of saturated fat, which has a negative effect on heart health. The burger patty has protein, which is part of a balanced meal, but there won’t really be any vegetables to speak of. The white bun the burger is served on surely contains added sugars and refined flour, neither of which is going to keep you feeling full for very long. Then you have that side of fries that’s not contributing too much nutrition to your plate either. It’s likely you’ll eat that whole burger and all of the fries… and be left wanting more.

Let’s think about the salad from the same perspective. It contains:

  • heart-protecting healthy fats from the avocado
  • cholesterol-lowering fiber from the black beans
  • gut-health-boosting, antioxidant-packed greens 

The salad will also fill you up more quickly and for longer than the burger—you may not even eat the whole thing and end up with leftovers for lunch the next day. When pitted against the salad, the burger doesn’t seem like such a winner anymore.

Plus, if you wanted to bring the calories down a notch in the salad, you’ve got options. Ask for the chicken grilled; get the dressing on the side or opt for a squeeze of lime, oil, and vinegar instead; and ask for half the tortilla strips (or none at all… and add extra beans if you’d like!).

The bottom line is—the calorie count is a good place to start and may even help you recognize that many of the foods or drinks you thought were great choices could use some alterations, or an alternative might be a better option. But also consider what else the food you’re eating is contributing to your life and your health. If you’ve been craving a burger for days, then ordering a salad isn’t going to be very satisfying. If that’s the case, order what you really want. Otherwise, think about what will make you feel the best and improve your health in the long run. Try to make this choice the majority of the time, and you’re on the right track!

See more tips for making healthy choices while dining out »

Meghan Perkins 150x150

Meghan Perkins is Project Angel Heart’s registered dietitian. After a semester studying baking and pastry arts at culinary school, Meghan quickly found her passion for clinical nutrition and transferred to the University of Northern Colorado to earn her bachelor’s degree in dietetics. Meghan has worked in clinical and private practice settings, educating patients about how their food choices impact their health with an emphasis on CKD, diabetes, heart disease, celiac disease, and weight management. In her free time, Meghan enjoys exploring Denver by bike with her husband, trying new coffee and tea shops, hiking in Crested Butte, and relaxing with her dog Barney.