Friday, April 30, 2010


Calorie counts

The elementary school where I play volleyball has some new signs up in the gym, presumably for a class lesson they’ve started. Each sign depicts two foods and one common calorie count.

From this, we’re given to understand that a plate of rice and beans and a plate of lo mein each have the same number of calories (I forget the numbers, and I didn’t write them down). A Big Mac and a plate of fish and vegetables are 600 calories each. A hot dog matches up with a salad, and a cupcake is in some way equal to a bowl of fruit. Doughnut, or bagel and cream cheese? Machts nicht.

I don’t know how the lesson goes, but I do hope they give a strong message that calories don’t tell the whole story. I’d hate to see a kid come out of this eating more cupcakes, or opting for a hot dog or a Big Mac instead of a salad or fish and vegetables.

Anyway, yesterday at lunch time I took a walk to the local post office — about a mile and a half each way — and decided to stop for a Caesar salad at a chain restaurant near the post office. In New York, most chain restaurants are now required to show calorie counts on their menus, and as I browsed the menu I thought about the signs in the school gym.

It’s not surprising, of course, that restaurant food tends toward the high-calorie side, but some of what’s there is eye-opening.

What really struck me was that almost every appetizer on the menu came in at well over 1000 calories — I think one was around 800, the lightest of the bunch, and one was 2500. These are appetizers. They’re meant to get you started.

Yes, they’re also meant to be shared, but here: suppose you and a companion order the spinach and artichoke dip (about 1500 calories or so; this one isn’t exact) to share, and then you each get the Fiesta Lime Chicken — a moderate choice, somewhere around yellow or green on the health spectrum — at 1230 calories. That brings you right to 2000 calories, which is a full day’s allocation, and that’s just for dinner (assuming you drink water or iced tea, and forgo dessert; we won’t even think about adding dessert to this). You skipped breakfast and lunch that day, right?

I’ve often joked that “appetizer” seems to be an American idiom that means “fried stuff”. The spinach and artichoke dip isn’t fried, of course, but that’s little consolation — note that it’s full of cheese, but that’s not part of the name (it’s all marketing, you know). And most of the other appetizers are: chicken wings, fried zucchini sticks, onion rings... fried cheese.

Again, calories aren’t everything, but the appetizers are also loaded with fat and salt, items that aren’t (yet?) listed on the menu. But you can get it from the chain’s web site:

Spinach and Artichoke Dip: ~100g fat (~25g saturated, 1.5g trans), ~2300mg sodium
Fiesta Lime Chicken (including sides): 67g fat (16g saturated, 1g trans), 4390mg sodium

4400 mg of sodium in the chicken platter! So in addition to the 2000 calories you and your companion would each eat, you’d each be sucking down about 110 grams of fat and an unbelievable 5550 mg of sodium. That’s almost two and a half days worth of sodium (recommendation is under 2300mg/day). And at 9 calories per gram, the fat makes up 990 calories of your meal. That’s almost 50%, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends getting less than 35% of your calories from fat [reference].

OK, we’re all curious: if you do go for dessert, you’ll have to get the Triple Chocolate Meltdown, of course (what else?). It’s actually not bad, as the desserts go: 810 calories, 46 grams of fat (no trans), and 530 mg of sodium. Share it. Or realize that it’s your calorie allocation for tomorrow’s lunch.

Oh, and my Caesar salad? Not too bad: 410 calories, 29 grams of fat (no trans), 820 milligrams of sodium. Too much salt, but otherwise OK. But don’t think that the salads are healthful, diet meals. The full-sized Oriental Chicken Salad has 1310 calories, 93 grams of fat, and 1470 mg of sodium. And the Santa Fe Chicken Salad is about the same in calories and fat, but has an amazing 3420 mg of sodium.

Eat well....

1 comment:

bbc said...

Yup, restaurant food is pretty disturbing. And, when one attains a certain age, weight creeps up, unless it is rigorously monitored. At home, I go for lots of fresh fruits, veggies, & salads (with homemade oil & vinegar dressings), as well as measured portion sizes of protein & carb. Away from home eating is, often, problematic, in terms of content and portion size. Ah, well.