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Adding up fast-food calories

Published:Wednesday | March 14, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Charlyn Fargo, Contributor

OK, so your favourite fast-food restaurant now posts the calorie count of your favourite sandwich. That's a good thing. However, a new study finds that nutritional information can be confusing to diners if they don't read the fine print when making healthy meal choices.

In the study, the scientists examined the calorie listings for 200 food items on menu boards from 12 restaurant chains in the New York City neighbourhood of Harlem. Too often, calorie counts were listed for combo meals or meals intended to serve multiple people or had wide ranges in what the calorie count might be.

For example, a bucket of chicken was listed as having 3,240 to 12,360 calories, but the menu board did not provide enough information for consumers to determine the number of pieces of chicken in a serving size. A listing for a sandwich combo meal said it ranged from 500 to 2,080 calories. However, no information was provided on how to order within the lower range of this menu item.

Under federal law, restaurants with 20 or more locations must provide calorie data and additional nutritional information for menu items and self-serve foods. Although the calorie information complied with US labelling rules, consumers may have a tough time making sense of much of it, the study found.

"Menu postings for individual servings are easily understood, but complex math skills are needed to interpret meals designed to serve more than one person," wrote study author Elizabeth Gross Cohn, an assistant professor at the Columbia University School of Nursing, and colleagues. "In some items, calories doubled depending on flavour, and the calorie posting did not give enough information to make healthier selections."

'Math literacy'

Researchers suggested that calorie listings should do more than merely comply; they should also take into account what level of 'math literacy' is needed to make use of the information. In a revised system, a breakfast sandwich, for example, would be listed as 'Egg with ham/bacon/sausage: 350/550/750', so consumers could know exactly how many calories various options would add.

"In low-income communities with a high density of chain restaurants and where educational attainment of consumers may be low, simplifying calorie postings and minimising the math required to calculate calories would increase menu-board utility," the researchers wrote.

Information courtesy of the Journal of Urban Health and Columbia University Medical Center.

Energy slump and weight loss

Q: I'm trying to lose weight, but each afternoon around 4 p.m., my energy hits a slump and I end up eating junk food. How will I ever lose weight?

A: It sounds like you're running out of fuel. Eating enough and choosing the right foods are two keys to maintaining energy while you're trying to lose weight. If your lunch is too light because you're either skipping it or trying too hard to cut back, it won't provide enough energy to get you through the afternoon.

Many people find that getting about a quarter to a third of total daily calorie needs at lunch works well. Calorie needs vary, but as an example, someone keeping calories to 1,600 a day for weight loss might aim for 400 to 500 calories at lunch (depending on how much snacking they prefer to do and how they spread out meal times). That's why a diet frozen meal, plain cup of soup, or energy bar usually won't suffice.

Information courtesy the American Institute for Cancer Research.

Charlyn Fargo is a registered dietitian at Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, at website at www.creators.com.