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What a nutritionist wants you to know about the new calorie counts on menus

Seeing the calories listed next to your favorite 'light lunch" can be overwhelming. Here's how to put these healthy menu additions into perspective.
Image: Calorie menu
Restaurant meals pack in a lot of calories — upwards of 1,400 per meal, according to one study.Andr? Chung / for NBC News

Next time you walk into Pizza Hut, you’re going to be able to see that a small express hand tossed Meat Eater pizza has 1,320 calories, while the Ultimate Cheese Lover’s variety has 1,060 calories. It’s not just Pizza Hut that will start posting calorie counts on menu items. All chains and other establishments (like supermarkets, coffee shops, drive-through windows, movie theaters and amusement parks) with more than 20 locations selling prepared food are now required to post calorie counts.

The calorie cost of dining out

According to one survey, Americans eat out an average of 4.5 times per week. When we eat out, we’re blind to the ingredients and amount of food used in our meals, and unsurprisingly, restaurant meals pack in way too many calories — upwards of 1,400 per meal, according to one study.

The new ruling is meant to help people make more informed choices, and hopefully, healthier ones. It’s also meant to inspire restaurants to provide better options because plastering high calorie counts all over the menu might not be so great for business. This provides additional incentive to put healthier options on the menu.

If you’re eating out often, getting a handle on the situation is a good step toward managing your weight. And learning how to use this new information is one tool that’s now available to you.

How many calories do you need?

Though the fine print on menus and menu boards (and the nutrition facts panel, for that matter) list 2,000 calories per day as the standard, the truth is, the number varies widely. Your daily needs depend on a variety of factors, including how active you are, how tall you are, how muscular your frame is, your hormones, your age, whether you’re trying to lose, maintain or gain weight, and more. On average, women’s calorie needs are between 1,600 and 2,400 calories each day; the range for men is 2,000 to 3,000. Remember that you could need more or less, depending on the variables listed above. A short woman in her 40s who works a corporate job that involves lots of sitting, for instance, may need fewer calories than those listed, while a 19-year-old man who’s a regular runner could need more. To get an idea of what your individual calorie needs are, check out this Body Weight Planner from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

How to use calorie counts

Knowing roughly how many calories you need each day helps anchor the calorie counts listed on the menu directly to your situation. Say, for instance, your calorie requirements are in the 1,600-calorie per day range. Then it’s easy to understand that the single-serve pizza listed above would be almost a days’ worth of calories. Knowing this, you can decide if you want to go for it or make a lower-cal choice.

But don’t just look at the numbers when you’re ordering. Just as important is thinking about the quality of calories. Look at it this way: 400 calories of soda is not going to be as filling or nourishing as a 400-calorie bowl of quinoa, broccoli and chicken. Foundational foods, including vegetables, lean proteins (chicken, fish, and lean beef), plant-based fats (like avocado, nuts and olives), and whole grains are the ones that satisfy hunger so the calories they contain are really doing their job.

Take a big picture view and use the counts as a guide to steer you towards foods that not only taste delicious, but work hard to satisfy hunger, and are within reasonable calorie limits — say, around 1/3 of your daily needs.

When calories catch you off guard

Seeing the calories on the menu board could be a really eye-opening experience, and one that might not be welcome. If it turns out your favorite light breakfast is not so light after all, don’t panic. The information is there to guide you, but there are other tools you might prefer instead. Take note of how you feel after you eat, whether your meal is satisfying and curbs hunger for a few hours. Do you feel energized, like you fed your body well, or sluggish? Are you at your happy weight, where you feel healthy and strong? If calorie counts stir up any negativity, turn to other ways to check in with your body.

What if you don’t want to use calorie counts?

For those who want more information about what they’re eating, calorie counts can be useful, just like knowing how much money is in your checking account or how much gas is left in your car. But if you feel like it’s data overload, there are other ways to make healthier choices when dining out. A few simple strategies can help you nourish your body better when you’re eating out:

1. Limit liquid calories

You don’t have to check calorie counts to cut liquid calories. Just avoid sugar-sweetened drinks, like regular sodas, lemonade, and coffee drinks that resemble milkshakes. Keep tabs on your alcohol consumption (one drink for women; two for men), and avoid sugary mixers. Calories from sugary drinks don’t offer nutritional value, and your brain doesn’t register liquid calories in the same way it does solid ones.

2. Plan ahead

Sometimes, the simple act of looking at the menu online, particularly at times when you aren’t hungry, can help steer you toward a healthier meal. It’s been shown that people who do a mental dress rehearsal set higher goals for themselves and adhere to their goals better than people who skip this practice. In other words, if you take a moment to make a mental note of a healthier option you plan to eat, you’re more likely to stick to it.

3. Eat slowly

You can’t control restaurant portion sizes, but you can control how mindfully you eat your meal. Wolfing down food doesn’t allow you to savor and truly enjoy it, and eating quickly doesn’t allow you to sense when you’re full until you’ve gone beyond that point. Try to slow down a tad by putting your fork down and pausing between bites. Enjoy the conversation and the setting, whether your meal is dine in or take out. Chew slowly and contemplate the variety of flavors and textures in your dish. Is that a hint of thyme you detect? Is the salmon tender and flaky? When you take a mindful approach, eat slowly, and take pleasure in each bite, you tend to eat less overall.

4. Beware of the bread basket

Actually, beware of breads and carbs in general. You don’t need to go to extremes, but bread baskets, bagels, burrito shells, and rice or quinoa-filled bowls tend to have oversized portions, contain refined, fiber-poor processed grains, or both. An easy way to tackle calories and portion sizes without counting or measuring is to make sure that veggies take up half your plate. Grains, preferably whole ones, take up ¼ or your dish, and protein — from plants or animals — takes up the remaining quarter. To put this in other terms, flip the ratio of your brown rice bowl so that the veggies are the main component and the brown rice is more of a topping instead of the other way around.

5. Stay with simple preparations

Since restaurant meals are notoriously high in calories, you could look for foods that are simply prepared, such as grilled, broiled or baked fish, chicken, or beef. Make sure your entrée includes plenty of vegetables, or have a side salad or simple vegetable side dish (like roasted Brussels sprouts) along with your meal. If your entrée looks larger than the meals you eat at home, try to save some for another time. Ask for a small plate and serve yourself a satisfying portion from the oversized entrée.

6. Skip or share dessert

I know this is a no-brainer, but passing on dessert will save you a ton of calories. If you dine out often and view dessert as a treat, consider other ways to nourish your soul and treat yourself with kindness. Maybe cultivating a deeper connection with a close friend or loved one over a meal is the reward, or maybe it’s a luxurious treat to enjoy a meal without having to wash dishes. For those times when dessert is non-negotiable, share it with your dining companions, and remember that the first three bites are the most satisfying. After that, the deliciousness plateaus.


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