What’s in That Big Mac? More Than You Think

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Apparently, fast-food frequenters have no idea how many calories they’re ordering up at the counter.

Researchers conducted a large cross-sectional study of 1,877 adults and 330 school-age kids who regularly visited fast-food chains including McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, KFC, Subway and Dunkin’ Donuts. The investigators collected receipts from the participants in order to calculate how many calories the participants consumed from their meals. They also asked the volunteers to estimate the number of calories they had just ordered. At the time of the study, none of the restaurant chains included calorie information on their menus, as many now do.

(MORE: How Much Exercise Will It Take to Work Off a Burger? Menus May Soon Tell You)

Reporting in the BMJ, the researchers found that on average, adults consumed 836 calories with each order, adolescents ate 756 and kids downed 733 calories. Not only was that a relatively large amount to consume in a single meal, but the participants also consistently underestimated how dense their meals were by an average of more than 100 calories. Adults and kids underestimated their meals by 175 calories, and adolescents by 259 calories.

The more calories the meals contained, the more the participants underestimated their content. Interestingly, the greatest disparity in calorie estimations were among Subway diners. Adults and adolescents who ate at the sandwich chain underestimated their meals by 20% to 25% more than the participants who ate at McDonald’s, possibly because the Subway choices have an aura of being lighter and healthier than those at fast-food chains.

But starting in 2014, as part of the U.S. Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), all restaurant chains that have over 20 restaurants in the U.S. must list the calorie content on their foods on menus. The initiative has received some push back from unlikely places, with some public-health experts saying the plan, rolled out in some cities and states, so far hasn’t resulted in a significant change in eating habits. Some studies of the strategy found that customers don’t notice the labels, or even if they do, they don’t influence what they buy.

(MORE: Do Calorie Counts on Menus Curb Eating? Not So Much)

A 2011 study of New York City consumers, for example, reported that only about a sixth of fast-food diners used calorie information in deciding what to buy and then bought less food on average after city officials introduced the menu labeling to the city in 2008.

In May, two Johns Hopkins obesity experts wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine that without a solid understanding of what the calorie counts mean, simply posting the numbers next to menu items will fall short. They wrote:

In jurisdictions that mandated menu labeling in restaurants before the passage of the ACA, calorie information is usually presented in terms of absolute calories (e.g., a hamburger has 250 calories). If customers don’t understand what 250 calories means or how those calories fit into their overall daily dietary requirements, posting that information on a menu may not be very useful. That difficulty may apply particularly to minority populations and those with low socioeconomic status, who are at highest risk for obesity and tend to have lower-than-average levels of nutritional literacy and numeracy, which may make it difficult for them to translate the information into interpretable equivalents.

However, the 2011 study of New York City diners did reveal that among those who used the calorie information to make eating choices, they purchased on average 106 fewer calories than those who didn’t pay attention to the labels. A significant cut like that could lead to a weight loss of up to 10 lb. a year.

Even if the data don’t yet show that the counts consistently change eating habits, some public-health experts say they may have other benefits. The transparency, for example, is compelling some foodmakers to produce smaller portion sizes and provide lighter options out of concern that high-calorie counts will scare consumers away.

However, other experts say that an obsessive focus on numbers may also backfire. “If [the food industry] responds to that by decreasing portion sizes, that would be great, but if they respond by taking out healthy fats, which is one of the easiest ways to reduce calories, that’s not,” says Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Some healthy foods may actually contain more calories than unhealthy options, and that can be confusing for consumers who are just focusing on the final tally. “For consumers, if you made a choice solely based on menu-calorie labels, you may choose soda over nuts calorie-wise, which is a terrible decision,” he says.

(MORE: Are Calorie Counts on Menus Accurate? Not So Much)

Another approach that may be more successful — and potentially more meaningful for consumers — is to swap calorie counts with more relevant information, like what it would take to burn off those calories. A small study last month showed that when people ordered off menus that listed the minutes of walking needed to burn off the calories in the food, they ordered and consumed fewer calories compared with those who ordered off a menu with no calorie labels. The same study also found no difference between calories ordered and consumed between those who ordered off a standard menu, and those who ordered off a menu that listed the calories for each option, which suggested that listing calories doesn’t result in meaningful changes to eating behavior. As the author of that study said to TIME:

It could take anywhere from one to two hours of moderate exercise such as brisk walking to burn the calories in some of the energy-dense foods. This may then help them make more appropriate food choices.

Helping people to put calories in context — just at the time that they’re ordering food — could be more important than simply throwing numbers at them, say researchers. Giving consumers a more tangible idea of what their food choices mean for their waistline — and their next workout — may help bring their internal calorie meters into sync with what foods actually contain.
39 comments
KarlKilian
KarlKilian

No amount of public angst or health-expert soapbox speeches about the nation's obesity epidemic will ever change the fact that, given a choice, people will eat what they WANT to eat, not what's good for them. In that respect, we're no better than lab rats addicted to crack cocaine. 

You want to reduce obesity? Take away choice. Ban the Big Mac and its ilk. But it'll never happen.

kbeanz
kbeanz

I've actually used that calorie information, not to alter what I order, but to change what I eat later. I do the math for the day's requirements and cut back on a later meal.

That said, I rarely eat fast food.

AndrewRomeo
AndrewRomeo

I worked for Pepsico when they owned Taco Bell back in the mid 1990s. TB tried to lower calorie and fat content on certain menu items, blew a load of cash announcing all the changes, and were met with a dramatic loss of interest from consumers.  Now called "YUM!" brands, the old Pepsi spin-off has Doritoes-Burritos, Cheese-infused pizza crust and that bread-less chicken/bacon/cheese sandwich which can kill you if you just look at it.  Consumers of this sort of food want this food:  high in fat, loads of sodium, etc.  How many joggers run into a Krispy Kreme for a smoothie? You'll see then in a Chipotle or Panera.  Why does absolutely no-one buy salads at McDonald's?  Why isn't Subway serving the best cup of Java in your town?  Because they don't. Just the idea of a McDonald's salad is abhorrent. You go to these places to eat what you came to the places to get in the first place.  You don't go to "Olive Garden" for a cup of Joe and a donut.

KarlKilian
KarlKilian

@AndrewRomeo ,

Absolutely true. There are people (including the restaurant chains' spokespeople) who are always pointing out that these restaurants have "lower-calorie" or "healthier" alternatives on their menu, but the fact is, that's not what customers GO to these places FOR.

ChikuMisra
ChikuMisra

The Big Mac has a special place in my heart. It is the only food I can recall eating as early as age five which I can go out and get at any time. That kind of nostalgia plus ubiquitousness is a powerful combination.

Kelly_Kim
Kelly_Kim

whether the fast food's calories are high or not, i just eat my favorite food because i can excercise. i don't care.

LesMit
LesMit

Completely agree with arguments 

gerryg_rc
gerryg_rc like.author.displayName 1 Like

Not just the calories:  A Big Mac has 540 calories, and it also has 1040 milligrams of sodium. Eating light? A McDonald's Southwestern Salad with crispy chicken and no salad dressing has 400 calories, and 1110 milligrams of sodium. Sodium has been shown to raise blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes. The recommended daily intake for sodium is 1500 milligrams for adults between the ages of 19 and 50. A Big Mac provides 69% of your daily sodium intake limit; the Southwestern salad is 74% of your daily sodium limit. The sodium in the salad is the equivalent of nearly 1/2 teaspoon of salt. 

LoriChauvetteIngham
LoriChauvetteIngham

@gerryg_rc Of which a recent study stated that the 1500 number was too low, and really should be between 3000 to 7000 of total intake.

Regardless, if people were really interested in calorie counts, they would look up the nutrition information before going to the restaurant.  That simple.

philwinkel
philwinkel like.author.displayName 1 Like

Here in 'murica we just want to eat greasy food and get fat, leave us alone

buffalo.barnes102
buffalo.barnes102

The calorie count in "fast-food" is flogging a dead horse. Any one who doesn't know that the stuff is a time bomb just doesn't care. Even supposedly "healthy" food, loaded with unpronounceable chemicals; sugar, sodium by the ladle, and layered on top of high fructose corn syrup/ floor wax,  is a crap shoot.   

mkb
mkb

Humans have perfected eating, Modern dishes provides more taste and also more calories. Modern food is refined and sophisticated one. All Animals want to eat more and more so that they can store enough energy to further living.

What is not factored is that modern Humans do not require so much of energy for their day to day survival.

Human body like any other animals stores the excess energy as fat, the fat we rarely need to use in this modern days.

This excess energy is the cause of diseases and complications of these diseases.

Only way is reduce intake that is is easier to say than practice

the other way is spend the trapped energy 

This is achieved by working and walking

Working a manual job hitting a Gym, Yoga or manual labor will do the job.

Human body has muscles spread across the body providing various movements that are necessary to survive even in toughest situations.

I have invented Body Mass Function Index BMFI Pl follow and visit 

http://mkbperfecthealth.blogspot.in/

Humans have learnt walking by trial and error 

none of us are taught How to walk correctly

Right walking is 1. Heel strike 2. Foot flat 3. Heel Off and 4.Toe off

Right walking puts the body into "virtuous cycle of Health"

Wlking improves the Muscle mass Muscle bulk absorbs the glucose and fat

Muscles and bone actions provide maximum stimulus to vital organs and make all organ in fit conditions.

Pl follow http://www.ebay.com/itm/MKB-PATENT-PENDING-PERFECT-WALKING-SHOES-Invented-by-Orthopedic-surgeon-/230986915536?pt=US_Men_s_Athletic_Footwear&hash=item35c7e49ed0

Right walking, working Physically puts you in the "virtuous cycle of Health"

HF75
HF75

What was the point of that study exactly? Even health conscious populations dont know by heart calorie amount of everything they eat...ludicrous.

836 calories on a 2000calories/day basis for an adult is ok if it's the heaviest meal of the day and the adult eats 3 times a day, 3 real meals.

Instead of focusing on the calories amount, you should focus on where they are from (distribution of protein, carbs, sugar, fats, fibers...and in fast food cases endless list of chemicals added ). With a bit of education on how to read and understand those information and how some combination work on one's body, the country wouldnt have all the current fast food related issues. Just by looking at a "hamburger", "wrap", or "fish" people would run away or put enough pressure to have actual food even in a fast food.

frdshoe
frdshoe

This study is a complete waist of time and money.  (I am sure it was tax payer money)  Asking people if they know the calorie count of food is stupid.  You could have done the same study in a grocery store and got the same results.  Most normal people don't memorize calorie counts for food. 

JasonKelly
JasonKelly

The studies showing it hasn't worked yet are not taking into account that it's not meant to deter mindless robotic humans from eating the stuff. It's intended to remind the thinkers among us of the dangers of eating this stuff. I love the King's Hawaiian Roast Beef at Arby's by the way. 

thewholetruth
thewholetruth

It not about the calories but it is about the chemicals in the food. We are basically all insulin resistant today, we are a Nation that has been raised on Aspartame, Sucralose, Saccharin, GMO and high fructose corn syrup. 

We are all insulin resistant, even the thin people still have excess belly fat today, we have all been effected. The only way to lose weight is with an insulin resistance diet, this worked in Europe and it reversed the damage from Processed foods 

See here http://losingbellyweight.wordpress.com/2013/05/06/even-a-little-belly-weight-is-dangerous-see-why/

yellow2
yellow2

McDonalds is once again the punching bag for obesity, but any restaurant is guilty of high fat, high salt and high carb food.


Its up to the consumer to eat out in moderation. No one ever said this food was good for you. Stop acting so shocked people

nicholasglen1
nicholasglen1

It is amazing how we blame the fast food restaurants for this kind of thing.  It is this kind of blame that makes us a complete victim culture.   It isn't about regulating this in any way, but using it as a model to show people that accountability and responsibility are how to create a strong culture.  It just goes to show we aren't as smart as we think we are and not a wonder that good jobs are hard to find in the U.S.  as if people can't be responsible enough to educate them about health and other items how can they be expected to learn new skills and earn a fair wage.  It is very easy to go to the store and buy healthy food cheaper than you can take a family of four out to fast food and much healthier!

suupasugoi
suupasugoi

@nicholasglen1 If McDonalds thought they would make money selling carrot sticks and steamed celery, they would be more than happy to comply. The problem is our palate.

nicholasglen1
nicholasglen1

@suupasugoi @nicholasglen1 Exactly.  Nothing wrong with anything in moderation, but that is not our palate.  McDonalds every couple of weeks is okay, every day and it will kill you or reduce your quality of life significantly.  People trade off instant gratification for longer term health.

byrondelaney
byrondelaney like.author.displayName 1 Like

Fast food burgers and cold cut sandwiches are bad for you, regardless of their calorie content. Plus they're cheap, low quality "food". These "restaurants" are making lots of cash, and that's the objective. They're not your grandma. They don't love you. 

wewt3r
wewt3r

Nanny State.  If fat:  blame spoons.

WertleWoo
WertleWoo

I think it's a good thing.  I used to hold up lines in the past asking for calorie listings.  Once McDonald's starting listing calories on their own, I started just eating at McDonald's more often than any other fast food chain.  I pay close attention to the food labels on my groceries to try to stay within healthy limits of everything, but I'm not going to lock myself in a box - I do still enjoy fast food sometimes, and it's often necessary on my lunch breaks when I don't have a refrigerator handy to store food from home.  However, that doesn't mean I want my fast food to cause me to go 1,000 calories over my diet.  It's nice to be able to see the calories on the menu and make decisions more easily based on them.  I haven't even been to a Subway or Burger King ever since McDonald's starting doing this.

woodredmond
woodredmond

The real culprit is the loss of buying power of the dollar.  A family of four making less than $30,000/yr (low socio-economic status) cannot afford the "healthy choices" from the market because of the now-exorbitant prices.  It is much more cost effective to buy some burgers and pops than it is to actually buy the meat and buns and cook it themselves!  It's not a coincidence that the rise in obesity has occurred at the same time as the sharp increase in food prices and the declining earnings and buying power of the American worker.


By the way, don't bring education into this.  Many states have gutted their school systems of funds, and pushing it into schools will have no effect, except becoming just another unfunded mandate.  Tea Party supporters probably didn't think that one through completely... 

OhReally
OhReally

@woodredmond  

If your serving burgers and buns and you think it is a "healthy choice", then you need to rethink your diet.  It is possible to feed your family healthy inexpensively.

If you have checked into what is being served at most schools, you would realize that it isn't much better than fast food.  Offering a small pack of carrots or grapes to go with that apple juice, pizza /burger and fries only makes it less unhealthy, not healthy.

ScottNV
ScottNV

Many private religious school purposely place religious principles into other subjects (reading, math and history).  This way religion is taught all day long.  The public schools should easily be able to place nutritional and environmental principles into reading, math and history classes.  One food label alone could be used for an entire arithmetic curriculum. 

cordawg
cordawg

@ScottNV I went to a private religious school and you couldn't be further from the truth here... Pushing a religious agenda in a math class? Haha. Interjecting religious themes in a science class? LOL.

Public schools across the country should EASILY reformat their curriculum to include nutrition label reading? Haha. You make it sound like it would take less than a year to add nutrition label reading into various classes, including HISTORY, for all 100,000 public schools in America. This would take years upon years. New York City attempted to do the right thing by banning large size sodas. The fix, if there is an immediate fix to the health crisis in America, is to simply start prohibiting the production and consumption of such products.

"One food label alone could be used for an entire arithmetic curriculum." Are the students going to add up the sodium and sugar content? Divide the grams of protein by the number of servings in the can? Or... or should they find the derivative of the saturated fat?

If one thing is true, you should NEVER be in charge of planning the curriculum for a school.

amandakunetka
amandakunetka like.author.displayName 1 Like

I agree w/ JanBos and DrEvile. Throwing calorie counts at people without any other pertinent information doesn't exactly change their views. I grew up eating whatever my parents put on my plate. Good or Bad. They didn't know how much of something they should really consume, so therefore I didn't know either. Also, not once during any of my schooling did my instructors teach us the differences in food and various aspects related to it, such as calories, carbs, fat, protein, sugar, etc. Nor the good and bad kinds of each. They never bothered to teach students how much of those various aspects we should consume and why too much or too little calories is bad. All I remember is being told to run 10 laps around the gym, or eat x so many servings of x food group (and even then, they didn't exactly specify what a serving size was.) Sadly, I still don't see this information being properly taught at schools or a real attempt to educate adults as well. Also, many of us who are overweight take one look at weight loss/food related information and immediately feel crushed under the amount of conflicting information that may or may not be correct. Because of this, I think the FDA and American Health Associations and other government food&health related organizations need to hunker down and get some education and advocacy programs going and feed them into the education system.

cordawg
cordawg

They've been preaching the food pyramid for decades now and, oddly enough, our weight has increased significantly over this time frame. Probably has to do with the fact that grains (of which we are supposed to have 6-10 servings a day) are immediately converted to carbohydrates (simple sugars) for energy purposes. If that energy goes unused, it is stored as fat. The facts are all in front of us. More grains + sedentary lifestyle = obesity and health issues. Don't trust the government to tell you what is healthy as they line their pockets from special interest groups *cough* *cough* corn and wheat farmers.

I would strongly advise everyone to stop thinking "diet" and think "lifestyle." Eating healthy foods (unprocessed foods, perishable, less than 3 ingredients) and regular exercise are essential to maintaining good health. It's that simple.

ScottNV
ScottNV like.author.displayName 1 Like

So no veggie burgers (processed food), no greek yogurt (3 or more ingredients), no nuts or dried beans (non-perishable).  Not so simple.

cordawg
cordawg

@ScottNV Seeing as how veggie burgers will contain either soy (which 90+% of the soy on the market is genetically modified) or beans (which are legumes and contribute to inflammation in the body), then the answer is no to veggie burgers. Greek yogurt has pasteurized milk. 1 ingredient. The rest is live cultures and not necessarily ingredients. Plain Greek yogurt without any additives is a good source of protein for people looking to build muscle but is not recommended for everyone because of lactose-intolerant issues. Nuts are perishable and, again, beans are legumes and cause inflammation.

Nice try though ScottNV!

cordawg
cordawg like.author.displayName 1 Like

I cannot wait for the day when people realize that calories are not the enemy. The real issue at hand is the quality of your food (or your caloric intake if you seriously prefer that metric). Eating processed foods and consuming tons of sugar (which studies have proven to be incredibly toxic inside the human body) is what is destroying our health.

Let's keep it simple. If Subject A consumes 2000 calories/day of different meats/veggies/fruits and Subject B consumes 2000 calories of ice cream and chocolate chip cookies, who will be healthier?

livinilla
livinilla

Typical McGreedy lies. But Ronald isn't 'bad' according to their thief in charge.

JanBos
JanBos

I would like you to be more specific when posting your news. Your heading "What's in a Big Mack",  (accompanied by a Mc Donalds breakfast sandwich picture), suggets that you target just that product, while you never make any specific claim of the oingredients of a Big Mack. All ingredients are listed on thw wrapping/packaging of the product. I agree with DrEvile. Stop regulating our choices and start educating.

DrEvilePhd
DrEvilePhd

Listing what it would take to burn an amount of calories is almost worse than listing the calories due to the infinite difference in body types and metabolism among people.  Here's a clue: require health education in public and private school starting in like 5th grade when kids start making their own decisions on how to eat and exercise so they know what it all means.  Stop regulating our choices and start educating.  This might save us all a lot of money and lives.