Tuesday, July 19, 2011

When Did Eating Out Stop Being Fun?

We went to IHOP for Sunday brunch recently. I hadn't been there in a while. I looked forward to some bacon, sausage, eggs, and maybe a stack of chocolate chip pancakes. Mmmm. After an interminable wait in the foyer as we hungrily watched other patrons get their platters of goodies, we were finally seated. I couldn't wait to get the menu and start ordering. I guess it had been a long time since my last visit because I was instantly struck by some large numbers in the menu next to the food items. No it was not the prices, which were quite reasonable. It was the calorie counts printed next to each listing. Holy cow.

California enacted a new law that took effect at the beginning of this year that requires all restaurants with more than twenty outlets to display their menus' calorie counts. If the state wants to kill the restaurant business here (as it seems to want to do to all businesses) this is the way to do it. After perusing the IHOP menu, I had pretty much lost my appetite. There was hardly anything worth eating that didn't surpass 1000 calories. That hearty breakfast with all the protein and the chocolate chip pancakes easily topped 1500 calores. That doesn't even include the pancake syrup (100 calories for one measly little ounce) and drinks. A simple bacon cheeseburger came in at only 780 calories. But then you add in standard sides like fries (300 calories) or heaven forbid onion rings (620 calories). I could feel my waist line expanding just reading the menu. Sure I could have ordered a side of fresh fruit for only 80 calories, but who eats a bacon cheeseburger with a side of stale fruit? Even the children's menu items could quickly add up to over 500 calories, far above what my elementary school kids should have at one sitting.

Now a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association has discovered that the calorie counts printed on menus can drastically understate the actual calories in the food. Scientists from Tufts University examined entrees from 42 different restaurants. They found that fast food restaurants undercounted their food by an average of 142 calories. Sit down restaurants did even worse, undercounting by an average of 225 calories per item.

Even healthy sounding food can have an enormous amount of calories. A cranberry pecan chicken salad at Bob Evans restaurant was listed to contain 841 calories. When the scientists did their own measurement, it came out to over 1100 calories. The calorie count can also vary by the preparer, even for the same item in the same restaurant. A burrito bowl at Chipotle had over 700 calories on one visit and 567 calories on another. Both numbers are still way higher than the menu, which lists the calories as only 454.

As I looked around the restaurant, I didn't see too many people overly concerned with their caloric intake. Everybody was having a good time digging into their brunch. I closed my eyes and selected what my stomach had been hungering for. After all, it's not every day I have brunch at IHOP. The exercises and dieting can wait for another day, and another, and another...

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