Why Menu Calorie Counts Don’t Matter

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Calorie information alone might be completely useless on restaurant menus because Americans don’t know how much is too much, according to a new study.

About 63% of 1,024 people couldn’t estimate how many calories per day they should consume to prevent weight gain in the first place, according to a recent online survey funded by the food and beverage industry.

"Nobody knows how many calories they should be eating, nobody knows how many they are eating, and nobody knows how many calories are in foods,” says dietitian and nutrition blogger Dawn Jackson Blatner in a USA Today story about the study. “I would say it's beyond calorie-confused. It's calorie-oblivious," she says.

At the same time, the industry study found that 70% of those surveyed were concerned about their weight, yet 77% don’t do at least 2½ hours of moderate-intensity exercise per week as suggested in government guidelines. Without regular exercise, Americans must rely even more on their diets to stay healthy.

But without knowing how many calories should be consumed per day, no McDonald’s (Stock Quote: MCD) lover could know that a 540-calorie Big Mac, a 500-calorie large order of fries and 310-calorie large Coke (Stock Quote: KO) is too calorie-heavy for a single meal.

And in fact, that McDonald’s meal adds up to nearly a full day’s worth of calories for a sedentary woman aged 51 or older, for example, who should be consuming just 1,600 calories to avoid gaining weight. And that poses a particularly difficult problem for low-income Americans, since fast food is often cheaper and easier to find than fresh produce in poorer areas of the country, as MainStreet previously reported.

With most consumers unaware of how many calories are too many, posting calorie counts fails to arm them with the information they need to make smart menu choices, the industry study argues.

Cereal boxes and other packaged foods provide a little more context on their nutritional labels, but the measurements listed are only based on a 2,000- or 2,500-calorie diet. Meanwhile, the number of calories one should consumer per day can vary between 1,600 and 3,000, depending on age, gender and activity level, according to Health.gov.

On the other hand, things like fat and sodium are tend to be more tangible for consumers while calories are a more elusive concept.

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