I’m just getting caught up with the Wall Street Journal’s report on calories in “low-calorie” meals served in chain restaurants. It’s worth a look. The reporter sent meals to a laboratory to test for calories. The good news: most calorie contents were as advertised. The not so good news: the calories are as advertised if–and only if–you don’t eat side dishes or additions like bread, cheese, or salad dressing. If you do, the calories go way up. And calories count. Alas.
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It’s the end of the year and snowing in upstate New York and a good day to respond to some questions. How about this one from Migraineur about whole grains: “What I would like to see is evidence that shows that whole grains are a better place to spend part of our daily calorie budget than are vegetables, meats, dairy products, fish, eggs, high quality fats, and fruits. That is to say, am I better off consuming whole grains or omitting grains entirely?”
My philosophy: the answer, of course, is “it depends.” Nutrition is about two things–calories and nutrients. Humans are omnivores. We can get calories and nutrients from just about anything we eat, plant and animal. If getting enough calories is the problem, grains are a big help because they are relatively concentrated in calories. Whole grains are better choices because they provide more nutrients than processed grains. But: if eating too many calories is the problem, then foods with fewer calories are better choices. Whole grains may have more nutrients, but they are just as caloric as processed grains. The science shows that people who eat whole grains are healthier, but good health practices track: people who habitually eat whole grains tend to eat better diets, stay active, and behave in other healthier ways. So it is impossible to tease out the effects of whole grains or any other single food or nutrient from dietary patterns as a whole. What does all this mean? If you like eating grains (and I do), then it’s fine to eat them. If you do not or don’t want to, you don’t have to. I cannot think of one single food or food group that is essential in human diets. And single foods and nutrients always have to be considered within the context of calories. That’s how I see it. Happy new year!
If the previous post was about taking off fat, this one is about putting it on. Ray Sokolov, a former editor and food writer for the Wall Street Journal, had some fun with the USDA’s food composition data base (click on Search and take it from there). He estimated the calories in a main course from Mario Batali’s Babbo and Thomas Keller’s Per Se. I doubt the comparison is fair, but it sure is fun. Guess which one had the most!
Center for Science in the Public Interest has just done calorie counts on meals served at Olive Garden and Romano’s Macaroni Grill. Pretty impressive! I don’t think you need complicated arguments about fat vs. carbohydrates to explain why people gain weight when they routinely eat meals like these. While I thoroughly agree that 50 or 100 extra calories a day do not really add up to pounds a year (because metabolism compensates for small differences), we are talking here about thousands of extra calories a day. Italians in Italy don’t eat this much, or at least they didn’t used to.
I am indebted to Michele Simon for sending a photo of this flier for the latest innovation in home-delivered food–Oreo Dessert Pizza. I’m sorry I can’t figure out how to make the photo bigger so you can see it better, but the way this works is that with any online pizza order you get a dessert pizza worth $3.99 tossed in. And, if you order two 20-ounce sodas, you get slap-on cooler wrappers, whatever those might be. The flier doesn’t disclose Nutrition Facts, so you have to guess the calories. Hint: Lots. Somebody try this and report back please.
I had lunch today at one of Cornell’s brand-new undergraduate houses where 350 sophomores, juniors, and seniors have a meal plan that allows unlimited access to meals prepared in cafeteria as well as to snacks supplied at an all-night canteen. Unlimited access means that students do not pay for each item. Instead, they can eat as much as they want of three meals a day plus a late lunch four days a week, plus leftovers and snacks at night. For lunch (modest because it’s only the second day of classes), we had a choice of hamburgers, chicken burgers, fish burgers, or fish for sandwiches with lots of fixings; a salad bar; French fries (heavily salted); two soups; a fruit bar; and a bunch of baked desserts. In case that didn’t do, students could also do the bagel bar or make their own peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Cornell students have one healthy advantage; the campus is huge, these dorms are on the downhill side, and they have to hike uphill to get to class. And, of course, they are young. But I wonder how they figure out how to manage portions and calories in this kind of environment? Anyone have any idea?
Today’s question (see Vending Machines post): “I was looking at the Nutrition Facts Label on a bag of carrots today…If I read this label and compare it to packaged foods, the carrots really don’t look all that healthy. And yet I know they are. I have the same experience with apples and with other fruits and vegetables. What needs to be added and changed on the Nutrition Facts panel so that this makes more sense? Has anyone done a blind study of nutrition labels, having people compare them side-by-side and see which food they believe is more healthy without knowing what the food is, but from the label alone?”
Response: When Congress passed the nutrition labeling act of 1990, which mandated Nutrition Facts labels on packaged foods, the FDA created a bunch of possible designs and tested them on consumers. The result: nobody understood any of the designs. The FDA chose the one that consumers least misunderstood. In What to Eat, I devote two chapters to explaining food labels, one for Nutrition Facts, and one for Ingredients. The FDA has a lengthy site to teach the public to understand food labels. I think the ingredient list tells you more about the real nutritional value of foods than the Facts part. My rule, only somewhat facetious, is to never buy foods that have more than 5 ingredients. The more processed a food is, the more ingredients it is likely to have (to cover up the losses), and the lower its nutritional quality. Fresh and some frozen foods have only one ingredient: carrots, apples, broccoli, beans. The most important thing I’d change on food labels is the calories. The FDA proposed five years ago to require packages likely to be consumed by one person to display the total number of calories on the front panel, rather than listing calories per serving, which makes the calories appear lower than they are. What happened to that excellent proposal? It disappeared without a trace (the packaged food industry loathes the idea). It’s tricky to figure out what else an ideal food label would display. Any ideas? Forward them to the FDA (and post them here, of course).
Today’s question is one I often get about my 15 seconds of fame in Morgan Spurlock’s film, SuperSize Me! (you can view the clip on my food politics website). A student in Great Britain writes: “…I would like to comment on your description of a calorie….You described it as “the amount of energy required to heat 1 litre of water by 1 degree Celsius.” Whereas I would argue that a calorie is the quantity of thermal energy required to raise 1g / 1cm3 by 1 degree Celsius, from an initial temperature of 15 degrees Celsius or 252 Kelvin. May I suggest that what you meant was a kilocalorie, and although this may seem pedantic, this is a gross difference and an inaccurate education for those watching. Especially after the number of people that were demonstrated to have no real understanding of the calorie…this was disappointing.”
My comment: Oh dear. It’s great that students are learning their basic chemistry but what I defined in SuperSize Me! was a Calorie (spelled with a capital C)–the kind used on food labels. This, of course, is really a kilocalorie. The calorie/Calorie/kilocalorie confusion is why I devote an entire chapter of What to Eat to explaining what calories are and why they matter.