Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Eating in restaurants

I read some very fascinating research from INSEAD and Cornell Universities. To briefly highlight some of their findings:

  • we significantly underestimate the number of calories in food we order in restaurants, even if we see the list of ingredients and even after we eat it. In one example, a 1000-calorie Subway sandwich was perceived as having only 585 calories.
  • this underestimation is even larger for restaurants that have a brand image that promotes healthy food. The 1000-calorie McDonalds burger was perceived as having 750 calories – closer to the truth (although still pretty far off).
  • when we order main dishes that we think are healthy, we are more likely to order less healthy sides, drinks, and desserts. Subway customers ordered sides with twice the calories as the McDonalds customers.
  • these errors compound with each other: “Good Karma Healthy Foods” customers estimated that their “famous classic Italian sandwich” had 409 calories and were then more likely to order chips with it than customers ordering the same sandwich at “Jim’s Hearty Sandwiches” which they thought had 622 calories. So they thought they were eating less at Good Karma, but were actually eating more.

So when you put these four results together, you can conclude that people are even more likely to gain weight from eating at “healthy” restaurants than at standard restaurants. It’s that large soda and small-looking cookie that get you. Ouch!! They found the same result with customers who said they were trying to eat healthfully. Healthy eaters also underestimated calories and ate more sides and drinks in general, and even worse at “healthy” restaurants.

This is even more evidence that we need to have nutritional information on menus. Food descriptions are just not enough to allow us to make informed decisions. It is too easy for restaurants to generate a “healthy” brand image with images of salads and lean meats and then make it taste incredible with a slathering of butter. We will never know what we are eating and obesity will just get worse.

And for personal advice, next time you are ordering in a restaurant – just assume the meal has several hundred calories more than you think. And just because you are at a restaurant that bills itself as “healthy” doesn’t mean that everything (or even anything) on the menu is actually healthy.