People who eat at fast food restaurants underestimate the calorie count of their meals, according to the results of a study published online on May 23, 2013, in BMJ.
As part of a cross-sectional, observational study, 1877 adults and 330 school-aged children in New England estimated the calories in their dinnertime meals from fast food restaurants including McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Wendy’s, KFC, and Dunkin’ Donuts in 2010 and 2011. Researchers also asked 1178 teenagers visiting these chains at lunch or after school to estimate the calories in the meals they purchased.
The average calorie content of meals was 836 for adults, 756 for adolescents, and 733 for children. Adults and children underestimated the calorie content by 175 calories on average, while teenagers underestimated theirs by an average of 259 calories. In all, two-thirds of participants underestimated their meals’ calorie content, and approximately one-fourth underestimated by at least 500 calories. The researchers also found that underestimation increased for meals with more calories. Diners at Subway underestimated calorie content by the greatest amount—an average of 349 calories for adults and 500 calories for adolescents.
The authors conclude that calorie labeling requirements on menus and other educational efforts may help people better understand the concept of calories and better estimate their caloric intake.