One dish, a side order of chips and salsa at On the Border Mexican Grill & Cantina, had more than 1,000 calories more than it was supposed to.
According to CNN:
“Some foods with the biggest discrepancies were lower-calorie items such as salads, which dieters would be more likely to choose. For example, the Tufts lab analysis showed the classic blue cheese wedge side salad at Outback Steakhouse contained 1,035 calories -- 659 calories more than what would be expected based on what was on the restaurant's website.”
Nearly one out of five fast-food and sit-down restaurant dishes contains at least 100 calories more than the restaurant's online menu states, CNN reports. Not surprisingly, sit-down restaurants were more inaccurate than fast-food menu items, which tend to be more standardized.
However, does this really matter?
If you're trying to lose weight, your instinctual response might be yes. Unfortunately, believing you can shed or maintain your weight by counting calories may be leading you astray and keeping you from success.
The Major Flaw that Makes Calorie Counting Almost Worthless for Weight Loss
I've long advocated against the general principle of counting calories unless you are counting them to make sure you eat enough protein to avoid losing muscle mass.
Granted, you'll probably lose weight if you eat fewer cookies, and hence fewer calories, but you're not going to get healthier as long as you keep eating cookies. And you probably will not lose as much weight as you would if you abstained from cookies altogether and replaced them with calories from a more nutritious food. And therein lays the crux: Calories are NOT created equal, and will not have identical effects your weight or health.
In short, you do not get fat because you eat too many calories and don't exercise enough. You get fat because you eat the wrong kind of calories.
The American Diet—A Recipe for Disaster
According to last year's Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the top 10 sources of calories in the American diet are:
- Grain-based desserts (cakes, cookies, donuts, pies, crisps, cobblers, and granola bars) 139 calories a day
- Alcoholic beverages
- Yeast breads, 129 calories a day
- Pasta and pasta dishes
- Chicken and chicken-mixed dishes, 121 calories a day
- Mexican mixed dishes
- Soda, energy drinks, and sports drinks, 114 calories a day
- Beef and beef-mixed dishes
- Pizza, 98 calories a day
- Dairy desserts
Looking at this list, it should become easier to see the dietary roots of the American weight problem. Four of the top five sources of calories are CARBS—sugars (primarily fructose) and grains.
As an update, you've often heard me state that soda is the number one source of calories in the US diet, which it was—based on the 1999-2000 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). The updated NHANES survey above covers nutritional data from 2005-2006, placing grain-based foods in the top two slots. Still, soda comes in at number four, and I still believe a lot of people, particularly teenagers, probably get a majority of their calories from fructose-rich drinks like soda.
In order to curb the current obesity epidemic, we do not need more accurate reporting of calories; we need to start focusing on eating the right kind of calories. It is far more important to look at the source of the calories than counting them. If it wasn't, you'd be able to subsist on nothing but soda and donuts and still stay trim and healthy. Alas, reality tells us that's simply not the case. I believe that the two primary keys for successful weight management are:
- Severely restricting carbohydrates (sugars, fructose, and grains) in your diet, and
- Giving your body enough healthy fat consumption
Why Counting Calories Doesn't Work
Your consumption of carbohydrates, whether in the form of grains (including whole grains) and sugars (especially fructose), will determine whether or not you're able to manage your weight and maintain optimal health. Cutting out or severely limiting grain carbs and sugars can be the U-turn you've been looking for if you are currently overweight and/or your health is suffering.
This is because these types of carbs (fructose and grains) affect the hormone insulin, which is a very potent fat regulator. Fats and proteins affect insulin to a far lesser degree.
Dr. Robert Lustig, an expert on the metabolic fate of sugar, explains that fructose is 'isocaloric but not isometabolic."
This means you can have the same amount of calories from fructose or glucose, fructose and protein, or fructose and fat, but the metabolic effect will be entirely different despite the identical calorie count. This is a crucial point that must be understood. Fructose is in fact far worse than other carbs because the vast majority of it converts directly to FAT, both in your fatty tissues, and in your liver. And this is why counting calories does not work... As long as you keep eating fructose and grains, you're programming your body to create and store fat.
How Much Fructose is Too Much?
If you have:
- Insulin resistance
- High blood pressure, or
- High cholesterol
... then you'll want to be very careful to limit fructose to 15 grams per day or less, and this includes fructose from whole fruit. Ideally you'll want to avoid ALL sources of fructose until your insulin stabilizes, and then proceed with caution.
If you do not have any of these health issues, then I recommend keeping your total fructose consumption below 25 grams per day, with a maximum of 15 grams from whole fruit. The following table can help you calculate your fructose from fruit consumption.
Next Step: Add Healthy Fats
As you decrease grain carbs, you'll also want to radically increase vegetable carbs along with increased amounts of healthy fats. Many believe you need grain carbs for fuel, but fat is actually a far better energy source. Saturated fat is the preferred fuel for your heart, and it's also used as a source of fuel during high levels of activity. Fats also slow down absorption of your meal so that you feel full longer, which helps prevent snacking. Good sources of healthy fats include olives, olive oil, coconut and coconut oil, avocados, and butter made from raw grass-fed milk.
In the end, the real remedy is not better calorie reporting and tracking, but rather to return to your kitchen and embrace good old-fashioned home cooking, using fresh, preferably local and organic ingredients. By avoiding processed foods, which includes the vast majority of fast-food dishes and even many meals in sit-down restaurants, you can avoid the primary culprit of weight gain: Fructose. It's hidden in most processed foods, including foods you wouldn't expect would need a sweetener...
It is a commitment—a truly important one—and it CAN be done. A major leap forward would be to strive for a diet of 90 percent non-processed food and only 10 percent from other sources. Sure, it takes a little more time and energy to follow an individualized nutrition plan than to eat fast food, but doing so could:
- Help you lose weight
- Add years to your lifespan
- Increase your energy levels
- Help you avoid diseases like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis
So the question is: What's really important to you? Convenience, or your health?