Counting calories to lose weight? Then be prepared to inflate calorie counts posted at restaurants and on frozen food packaging by 18 percent and eat accordingly. The New York Times’ Nicholas Bakalar reports that fast food and frozen meals contained an average of 18 percent more calories than listed, according to a new study.

Some of the disparities were startling. At Denny’s, a serving of grits, listed at 80 calories, tested at 258. The label on Lean Cuisine’s shrimp and angel-hair pasta says it has 220 calories, but the researchers measured it at 319. They found 344 calories in a Wendy’s grilled chicken wrap listed at 260.
That 18 percent average is actually below the 20 percent variance the Food and Drug Administration allows for packaged food — but certainly more than enough to foil your new year’s resolution to lose weight. In fact, foiled weight loss plans are exactly what got Dr. Susan B. Roberts, one of the researchers behind this study, looking into this calorie issue!

This fatty info won’t be news to MNN readers who read my post about theater popcorn a couple months ago, about a study that found Regal’s medium popcorn contained 1,200 calories — not the 720 calories that Regal lists. According to the New York Times, reasons for calorie count discrepancies include everything from the inevitable variability of handmade foods to manufacturers’ penchant for making packaged foods heavier due to the FDA’s “significant penalties for selling underweight packages.”

Will calorie count info get more accurate in the future? One expert, Jennifer L. Pomeranz of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Nutrition at Yale, is quoted saying that government regulation requiring posted calorie counts will then lead to goverment monitoring for the accuracy of information. We’ll soon find out if Pomeranz’s speculations are correct in California, where restaurant chains have been required to make calorie information available to customers since mid-2009. In Jan. 2011, the chains will be required to post calorie information directly on the menus.

In the meantime, dieters may want to spend less time counting fast food calories and more time cooking up simple dishes at home.

Also on MNN:

Lean Cuisine: Not as lean as its packaging
Study finds fast food and frozen packaged foods often contain many more calories than advertised.