297. A Brownie Sundae by Any Other Name…is Still a Caloric Nightmare.

This isn’t a new topic – to me, the healthy living blogging community, or society as a whole – but it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately as I’ve been diligently (and less than diligently) tracking my Weight Watchers points: availability of restaurant nutritional information.

Laws in place in New York require calorie counts be on the menus at restaurant and fast food chains.  (I’d completely forgotten about this until we were at Applebee’s in NYC!  I was actually confused by nutrition information on the menu until I remembered it was required by law.)  There have been studies that show it doesn’t have a huge effect on people’s selection – about one in six people use the calorie information and select lower calorie options.

Truth be told, the majority of the time when I’m going out to eat, I’m not really trying to be healthy.  No matter how healthy you try to be at a restaurant, it’s still not going to be as healthy as something made at home.  It is what it is.  Generally, we eat out at most once a week.  I consider this my splurge meal, and I’m going to get what I want.  Having the calorie count on the menu isn’t likely to dissuade me from ordering what I want unless it’s absolutely ridiculous.  That said, I still want to be able to track my food and assess the “damage” I’ve done.

I appreciate the laws that require restaurants to include calorie counts on their menus and signage, but what I would really like to see is a shift in the restaurant industry to readily providing more healthy options and easy access to complete nutrition information.  I don’t even necessarily care if it’s on the menu.  There are plenty of other ways to make nutrition information available to your customers without making it “in your face” which is another complaint I’ve seen about calories being posted on menus.

  • Provide a booklet at each table – like the dessert or drink menu – listing all the nutrition information.  If the customer is interested it’s at their disposal.  If they’re not, they can ignore it.
  • Make it easily accessible on your website by a downloadable PDF – the key here is easily.  Don’t make the customer dig around for it or request it from you. (I’m looking at your Buffalo Wild Wings!)
  • Even better, provide “meal builder” function on your website.  Panera posts calorie counts on their menu boards, but their website has a feature that allows you to determine the complete nutritional information for your entire meal, and it’s fully customizable.  If you substituted your bread, you can swap it out in the meal builder tool; did you leave off the sauce?  You can subtract those calories quick and easy.
  • Electronic kiosks with the nutrition information are another option.  I believe au Bon Pain has these, but I could be wrong.

In any case, don’t tell me I can’t have it.  (This statement was originally directed at Friday’s, but I just discovered they now provide complete nutrition information on their website.  Kudos!)  I understand that for smaller restaurant chains and family owned restaurants providing nutrition information can create an additional burden, and in this case, I can generally estimate.  However, large national chains have no excuse.  Plus, refusal to provide me with nutritional information makes me wonder what they’re hiding.

What do you all think?  Is the availability of nutrition information important to you?  Was it important to you before you shifted to a healthier lifestyle?  Would/ do you let nutrition information dictate your choices at a restaurant? Do you think if in your face nutrition information became the norm people would think about it more, or do you think that would make it so common place it would be just as easy to ignore as if I weren’t there at all?

I’m really curious.  It seems like such a simple idea – provide people with information about what they’re eating, but a lot of people seem to get really bent out of shape over it.  It also wasn’t something I gave much thought to prior to 2009.  I knew eating out meant high calorie dishes, but I never realized that some of those desserts (my beloved brownie sundaes!) often contain an entire day’s worth of calories!

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6 thoughts on “297. A Brownie Sundae by Any Other Name…is Still a Caloric Nightmare.”

  1. I’ve thought a lot about this. I don’t think the nutritional information matters much, although I do like to have a quick glance in case there are any 3,000 calorie surprises! People who lead healthier lifestyles and are generally informed about food will know which dishes are likely going to be high calorie counters. For example, sugary, creamy, cheesy, high-fat meats, etc. On the other hand, I’ve often been surprised at just how high calorie some dishes are!

    1. I think restaurant salads are usually one of those surprising dishes. You think you’re doing the healthy thing by ordering a salad and then BAM! you’re ingesting a day’s worth of calories.

  2. This is really timely and interesting, because we had a major discussion over this at dinner during HLS one night. I also attended a seminar that touched on this topic in great detail with some informative research behind it at the American Culinary Federation conference I attended in July.

    The research says that people don’t care about calories as much as they do flavor and the feeling they have from eating the food. People are looking for fresh and healthy tasting dishes and not putting as much consideration into calories. However, for some people – calorie contents rule their decision making process. I think other people don’t understand calories or macronutrient information very well, so for some it’s all foreign to them. I had one guy tell me that he needed to eat 3,000 calories a day because the American standard was 2,000 and that was for a woman. People may not understand what the information says, therefore they ignore it and order what they ant.

    I agree with you – I like sites with an entree builder, like panera or outback, so I can see exactly how my decisions affect the dish and overall nutrition. But I also won’t go automatically for the lowest calorie dish on the menu either. I like to splurge a little when I go out to eat, but also enjoy myself within moderation. Calorie contents really help me do this and I’m excited to have them at all restaurants with 20 or more locations in the next year.

  3. I think more and more people are starting to pay attention to calories at the restaurants. I’ve been always checking them, especially the places I go for lunch outside of work. But I do often find that many times, I check the nutrition info and realize that nothing there is going to be healthy for me in the long run (maybe that’s mostly because I am such a picky eater, though I’m getting better!)

    A lot of my friends have recently go on major diets and exercise frenzies and are starting to look at nutrition like a serious thing. However, I have one friend who works out everyday and then splurges on bad foods right away and doesn’t care about calories. I definitely think that more and more people are paying attention.

    Last thing to add is that a lot of these chain restaurants aren’t giving you the fresh meals you are lead to believe you are getting. Personally, I dislike many of the chain restaurants because it seems like they are just reheating frozen foods and putting them on a plate and running to the bank. In general, I think that a transition from eating out everyday (which I think many americans probably do) to preparing and cooking your own meals is a proper goal our culture should start moving towards. Although I’m guilty of not cooking at home as often I like, I still realize and recognize that its healthier and can be funner then sitting down and being served a 1500 calorie meal.

    1. I definitely think that cooking is a lost art in our current culture, and I agree that a movement toward cooking at home should be the goal for this country. It’s healthier, cheaper, and more rewarding in a lot of ways. It’s also more time consuming, and I think that’s really the biggest issue. Everyone is so busy and constantly on the go it makes it hard, but I think if you make the decision to start cooking more (and you actually do it) you find ways to work around the business and making home cooking a more efficient process for yourself.

      I also think that eventually, maybe not in our generation but eventually, our consumerism will catch up to us, and we’re going to be forced back into a more “traditional” way of life. I think people are already starting to catch on to the fact that our current way of life isn’t sustainable and are beginning to change their lifestyle. I know I already have. (Which actually links back to a comment I had planned to leave on your blog and never did.) I make far more of my food from scratch than ever. I’ve all but stopped buying bread. I recently bought a book so I can start moving toward more natural and homemade household cleaners and body car products. (like Mandy). I spend so much more time considering what I’m putting in, on, and around my body and the effects those things will have on me, my pets, the environment/ planet and even my future children.

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