Day in and day out, we are exposed to invincible desirable forces. They beseech us from billboards and beckon us during office meetings. They’re essential to our lives, but in excess, they become dangerous.
Calories. Why do we have them? We need them to function, yet we can’t have too much of some; more of others are better. Why bother even counting calories?
It’s this exact question that restaurants are being posed right now. It’s not that you are being encouraged to change the recipe of your highest-selling dessert. Customers should be able to treat themselves, so if it tastes good, serve it up! Right?
Or…should customers know when they are eating an extremely high number of calories?
The recommended daily intake of calories depends on age, gender, and activity level, but the range for adults is about 1,600 to 2,400 calories, according to WebMD. Yet there are popular dishes being served in chain restaurants nationwide that have nearly or more than 2,000 calories—sometimes in one item alone. To make matters more controversial, plates that seem as though they would be on the healthier side end up being some of the worst.
Take a look at this list from delish.com. Who would have guessed that an omelet with a side of pancakes from iHop has 1,990 calories in it? Or that the Cheesecake Factory’s Warm Apple Crisp has double the calories as a regular slice of cheesecake (1,740)? They say meat and potatoes are a nutritious meal unless you order the Herb Prime Rib from Outback Steakhouse, which health describes as having the “nutritional equivalent of having ordered three 10 oz. ribeye steaks and three sides of garlic mashed potatoes.” The number of calories in this dish is an astronomical 2,404.
The FDA Wants to Help Inform Diners
Amid an arduous back and forth between lawmakers and the FDA, the FDA made a game-changing decision in 2016. A recent law requires chain restaurants (with 20 locations or more) to include calorie counts on menus. You can read more about it here, along with information about registering with the FDA as a single restaurant, food truck, or small chain.
While your most sinful dish might not even get close to having 2,000 calories, now is the right moment to ask: Just what are we serving our customers?
As it turns out, restaurants that provide caloric information are viewed more favorably by customers.
The Ins and Outs of Calories
By now, it is probably clear to most consumers that eating out is may not always be the healthiest choice. Yet, all the marketing hype projected by restaurants can sound quite convincing. Restaurants and fast-food chains are pitching everything from fat-free, no carbs, low calories, high fiber, and other specialty menu items.
Many even make specific promises about their food choices by providing nutritional information guides and even list macronutrient details right on their menus. Such details have been welcomed by millions of consumers who are watching their waistlines. Unfortunately, even if you adhere to ordering from these “healthy” menu offerings, you may still find yourself struggling to lose weight.
Since the discussion of health and calorie intake is hitting the restaurant industry hard, we wanted to provide you with a digestible (pun intended) resource on calories and how they work. We will take the liberty to say that this is not the most scintillating of information, yet it’s important to know these fundamentals.
After all, food is our trade. We need to know what we are selling.
The Science of Calories: Part 1
A calorie is a unit of energy or heat.
To be exact:
One calorie is the same as 4,184 joules (the measurement of a unit of energy in physical sciences)
- It takes 4,184 joules (one calorie) to heat one gram of water at one degree Celsius.
- One calorie of food is actually 1,000 calories. For that reason, food calories are more accurately called kilocalories—you might have noticed both terms used on different food packaging. When a food label indicates that a can of soda is 200 calories, it means 200 kilocalories or 200,000 calories.
- Food has the capability to be turned into energy like electricity. For example, 700 grams of corn is roughly 280 ml worth of ethanol.
- It turns out that burning calories is not a figurative concept. If you’re curious to learn more about how our metabolism works, we recommend starting your research here.
The Science of Calories: Part 2
Kilocalories (food calories) are made up of three parts:
The caloric amount of each component is determined by its weight.
- 1g protein = 4 calories
- 1g carbohydrate = 4 calories
- 1g fat = 9 calories
Let’s say a can of soup with 330 calories reads the following:
- 20g of protein
- 10g of carbohydrates
- 13g of fat
You would make these calculations to see how many calories make up each one:
- 50g of protein x 4 calories = 200 calories
- 10g of carbs x 4 calories = 40 calories
- 10g of fat x 9 calories = 90 calories
The Science of Calories: Part 3
To get through the day with enough energy, the right number of calories is needed. This is based on:
- Basal metabolic rate
- Physical activity
- Thermic effect of food (how much energy it takes your body to digest)
When weight is gained, it is measured as 3,500 calories of one pound of stored fat.
If you’re still having doubts relying on caloric and fat information provided by restaurants, just stick with these tips when dining out:
Start your meal with a salad that ONLY consists of veggies. Have your salad dressing on the side and try to use only 3 to 4 spoonful of it on your salad.
- Order your meals steamed, grilled, or broiled.
- Avoid items that are fried or sautéed.
- When your server brings your meal to you. Ask that half of it already be placed in a to-go bag. Then save that portion for another day.
- Ask that side veggies be steamed with no added butter or sauces.
- Choose beverages without sugar or sugar substitutes. Try water with lemon slices, unsweetened tea, or caffeine-free coffee.
- Skip the bread bowl.
- Don’t order appetizers in addition to an entrée.
- Share a meal with a friend.
- For sandwiches, ask for whole wheat bread.
A lot of restaurant dieting is ruined without even being noticed due to extra calories you may not realize you are taking in. Sauces and mayonnaise are often added onto sandwiches, and dips are served with items such as chicken strips. A lot of restaurants bring rolls or other appetizers to the table free of charge, and it is easy to nibble on these while lost in conversation and not realize how many extra calories you are consuming. If you have done your homework, you will know if you need to order your sandwich without a sauce or slide the rolls away from you to limit temptation.
Like salt, it’s hard to monitor calorie intake when you don’t know how many calories are in a food item. Restaurants are now being asked to consider the customer’s health for just this reason. Gone are the days of creating menus based on just taste and style. A new era is emerging. Health trends like ancient grains and vegetable-centric diets are becoming lifestyle choices, and the caloric content of a dish is becoming a question of ethics in the industry.
How many times a day do you hear, “Can I have the dressing on the side?” Now consider, would that be different if customers knew how many calories that dressing had?