How Many Calories are Really in that Meal?

I am sure you are familiar with the standard suggestions given in the interest of weight management and health – “Read the nutrition label,” “Count your calories,” “Compare the caloric density of  meals.”  In theory, it is sound advice.  Body weight is maintained when there is a caloric balance -“calories in equal calories out.”  To lose weight calories consumed should be less than calories expended. If intake is greater than expenditure, then weight gain occurs.

The nutritional information listed on prepackaged foods, and now provided by some restaurants, should help you to determine the amount of calories you are consuming.  After all, the best way to calculate how many calories you take in throughout the day is to rely on the information of the nutrition label, right?  Not so fast say investigators of a study published in the January 2010 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.  The study, which evaluated the energy content of 39 commercially prepared frozen entrees and restaurant meals (obtained in the Boston, MA vicinity) indicated that there is a significant discrepancy between the caloric content listed and the actual values contained in the food.

The purpose of the investigation was to determine the accuracy of claimed energy values of food targeting consumers interested in weight management.  To be included in the study, criteria for restaurant meals were as follows:

  • Total energy content less than 500 kcal
  • Typical American food fare
  • One of the menu offerings that was lowest in caloric value

For frozen entrees obtained from the grocery store to be included in the study they had to be considered an alternative choice to dining out.

The test meals were sent to a research lab for analyzing.  The results?  The average caloric value of tested restaurant meals was 18% greater than the stated energy content, with some foods containing twice as many calories than listed (i.e., 200% more than claimed).  Frozen meals purchased from the grocery store had, on average, 8% more calories than purported.  The investigators note, however, that “the underreporting of energy by restuarants and food manufacturers notwithstanding, the majority of foods tested were not out of compliance with US Food and Drug Administration regulations because most fell within the 20% overage the Administration allows for packaged food (no ceiling of overage is specified for restaurant foods).”

Although these discrepencies fell within the acceptable range based on federal guidelines, they can still have a major negative consequence for the well-meaning consumer trying to adhere to a diet conducive to weight management.  What can/should be done about this?  The investigators suggest that steps be taken to improve quality control during commercial preparation of food and that stricter federal and state regulations be put in place with a better means by which to ensure compliance by food manufacturers.

Consumers need to arm themselves with the knowledge that the actual caloric content of the foods they eat may be significanly more than what is stated.  Therefore, if you are counting your calories and exercising but still having difficulty maintaining body weight, you might want to reconsider your food choices.  Switching to more meals prepared at home from whole foods and foods in their natural state may be the better alternative.

What do you think?  Should there be stricter federal and state regulations on energy content claims made by food manufacturers?  Share with us, we want to know!


J Am Diet Assoc. 2010;110:116-123.  “The Accuracy of Stated Energy Contents of Reduced-Energy, Commercially Prepared Foods,” Urban, L.E. et al.,.




Filed under caloric content, frozen entrees, frozen meals, nutrition labels, restaurant meals, weight loss, weight management

3 responses to “How Many Calories are Really in that Meal?

  1. Pingback: How Many Calories are Really in that Meal? « Healthandfoodforum's Blog

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