What’s That You’re Eating?

We're all familiar with food labels, those sometimes endless lists of information found on almost all packaged foods, citing serving size, calories per serving, sodium, fiber, and other information relevant to whether we should actually consume the stuff.  One hope of the federal government's in regulating these labels is that people will use them to make good nutritional choices, including limiting intake and hopefully stemming the tide of obesity threatening to overwhelm us all.  What then of restaurant foods?  As Rick and I discuss in this week's podcast, based on a study in JAMA, even though nutritional information is supposedly available for many prepared foods at restaurants, that information appears to sadly underreport the number of calories per serving.  And that's bad news for those of us who would or should be watching our consumption.

The study reports a statistic I found startling:  over one-third of the daily energy intake among those of us living in the United States is provided by food purchased in restaurants.  These run the gamut of sit-down versus fast food spots (which the study calls 'quick serve') but I am still astonished.  Almost half of US households eat out at least 3 meals per week while 12% rack up restaurant visits more than 7 times each week. Yowl!  Not only does that sound like a lot of consumption to me, it also sounds expensive.  But that's the data from 2005-2006, which no doubt has either remained the same or gone up based on obesity numbers.

The study measured dietary energy in food from 42 restaurants in Massachusetts, Arkansas and Indiana purchased between January and June 2010.  A 'bomb calorimeter' was used to measure the actual energy content.  As Rick quips in the podcast, this is not a terrorist device, it's a very accurate means of combusting food to measure how much energy it provides.  A total of 269 food items selected from the menu of both sit down and fast food restaurants were assessed.

Variability between stated calories and those actually measured was disconcertingly great.  Almost 20% contained more than 100 kcal more per portion than stated in the nutritional information, with some containing over 250 more calories per serving.  Pity the poor person who relies on such data to control calorie intake!  Clearly given the number of meals eaten out and the excess calories, packing on the pounds is almost a certitude.  Interestingly, the inaccuracy was greatest for those foods reported on the low end of the calorie spectrum.

What's a responsible consumer to do?  Until the federal government steps in and demands more accurate information, I suggest automatically ticking upward by 10% the number of calories you think you're eating when you dine out, and plan accordingly.  Rick simply suggests dining out less and munching down more fruits and veggies, for which we do have accurate information.  But for now, caveat emptor! 

Other studies this week include a look at HIV treatment in Uganda in Annals of Internal Medicine, exercise and cognitive decline in Archives of Internal Medicine, and diet and diverticular disease in the British Medical Journal.  Until next week, y'all live well.

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Kerryn September 3, 2011 at 10:00 pm

Shoot, so that's that one suosppes.


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