by Marion Nestle
Mar 6 2012

Nutritionist’s Notebook: Dining Out Estimations

My Tuesday Q and A for NYU’s Washington Square News:

Question: When you go out to eat, how can you estimate the amount of butter and grease that is used to cook vegetables? How does this detract from the nutritional value of the food?

Answer: If you are eating out, guessing the amount of anything in food calories or fat is next to impossible. You cannot guess accurately unless you are in the kitchen watching what goes into your food, looking up the composition of each ingredient and adding up the nutrients. If you want to try this, the U.S. Department of Agriculture food composition tables are at

I like a little butter or olive oil on my vegetables. Fat brings out taste and makes vegetables taste delicious.

Fat does other good things to vegetables. Without some fat in your diet, you will not be able to absorb and use beta-carotene and other fat-soluble nutrients.

From a quantitative standpoint, fat provides twice the calories per unit weight than do either protein or carbohydrate. A tablespoon of fat provides about 100 calories. A tablespoon of sugar gives about 45 calories.

That kind of fat is important to health. All food fats — no exceptions — are mixtures of saturated, unsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids but proportions differ. Animal fats like butter are more highly saturated than salad oils.

As for quality, grease sounds pejorative so I assume you mean oils that have been repeatedly reused. Those are best avoided, as are those that have been partially hydrogenated, a process that introduces heart-unhealthy trans fats.

How can you tell fat quantity and quality? If a food looks greasy and smells bad, don’t eat it. It’s unlikely to be good for you.

Email Marion Nestle at

  • Michael

    Yup: damned near impossible, as studies have shown and as anyone can confirm by trying to put reasonable estimates on the Calorie counts of dishes at restaurants that have nutrition info on the menus (a tribe which will happily expand thanks to a well-placed government mandate). Heck, it’s hard enough to even guess which of two restaurant dishes has MORE calories than the other:

  • Margeretrc

    Good post, Dr. Nestle. I agree with pretty much everything you said. I would add that many restaurants provide nutritional information–and sometimes ingredients–on their websites now. If a restaurant does not provide that information, you’re on your own.

  • Well said! I would further endorse a move away from analyzing our intake, but rather starting to eat more mindfully–certainly challenging unless you take a few steps like asking for a smaller, separate plate when eating out and taking just as much as you typically need, and setting aside the rest for another day.
    Slowing the pace allows satiety to happen as well.

  • Joe

    Altough many restaurants do provide nutritional analysis the numbers given were most likely a result of the menu items being tested in a kitchen “lab” under tight control. The same menu item from a busy kitchen will likely differ from even what is posted for public consideration.

  • Liz Cappalli,RD,LDN,CDE

    Nice post .Just what the public needs:simple,direct and TRUTHFUL”.
    Liz Cappalli,RD,LDN,CDE

  • Anthro

    Odd comments.

    I guess to some degree it depends on what you include in the category of “restaurant”.

    McDonald’s may be a restaurant to some and at least you can get an idea of the calories on offer. Personally, I eat only at high end restaurants on special occasions and then I don’t really worry about it. The portions are appropriate, the pace is pleasant, the staff are knowledgeable and welcome reasonable questions about the food and its preparation. I stay away from meat (except fish) and things I know will be swimming in butter or oil, but like Marion, I enjoy some “grease” on my veggies.

    When I have to go to a chain-type restaurant for a social event, I stick with salad and ask for dressing on the side–but I am known to bum a few of those lovely sweet potato fries from the grandkids.

    Gosh, I just realized that Margaret has graced Marion with her approval of a post. Shall wonders never cease!

  • Benboom

    Anthro, you need to stop calling out people on this blog. It’s not your blog, it’s Marion Nestle’s. We’re all pleased that you found a diet that works for you; now why don’t you extend the same courtesy to the rest of the readers?

  • About guessing calories: You don’t have to be completely correct about the number you come up with when you eat at restaurants. A close enough estimate usually suffices and many people counting calories actually get quite good at it.

  • Anthro


    I think Marion will delete anything she finds out-of-line, and as long as people continue to post unsubstantiated and unscientific claims, I will continue to refute them.

  • Suzanne

    You don’t refute the references, Anthro, you dismiss them. Because you don’t agree with them.

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