It would easier to count calories if we could just see the pesky things. Add up how many of them are on your plate, and you never have to eat a single one more than you want to. But calories are good at hiding themselves–even at health-food restaurants.
Many of us have by-passed McDonald’s for a virtuous, diet-friendly place, only to leave feeling more stuffed than if you’d had the Big Mac and fries. It’s no illusion.
Menus at restaurants that market themselves as healthy alternatives are often big minefields, booby-trapped with hidden fat and calories than can blow any diet to smithereens.
Look at this salad. It’s high calories:
- 06 calories in ¼ cup diced tomato
- 10 calories in 1 tbs. olives
- 30 calories, 3 cups shredded lettuce
- 30 in 1 tbs. crumbled bacon
- 105 in ½ cup chopped hard boiled egg
- 180 in 1 oz. walnuts
- 266 in ½ cup diced cheddar cheese
- 300 in 2 tablespoons Caesar salad dressing
- 360 in 3 oz. croutons
Where are the most calories? In the nuts, cheese, salad dressing, and croutons that we add.
How we trip ourselves up
Take those heart-healthy symbols that can pop up next to menu items. Diners may trust the little icons more than their own common sense, believing that there’s a reduced risk for heart disease even if the symbol is next to a manifestly fatty food like lasagna.
We’re also suckers for the term low cholesterol, thinking that it’s synonymous with low fat, which is by no means always the case.
We compensate: If we have a healthy entrée, we then decide we might as well cut loose with the extras, adding a helping of mashed potatoes to the lean piece of fish or loading up a salad with cheese or croutons and dressing.
We do the same with healthy snacks. One study showed that if you give people the low-fat, low-calorie version of a food like a granola bar or Chex Mix, they’ll compensate by eating 28% more of it than they would of the higher-fat version.
We believe advertising. In another study, people were given sandwiches that they were told came from either McDonald’s or Subway, which has successfully marketed itself as a smarter alternative (even if its meals can still be stuffed with calories).
Those eating the food labeled Subway often washed it down with sugary soda or followed it up with cookies or chips, apparently concluding they had a little room to indulge.
Perhaps worst of all, there’s the notorious what-the-hell effect. Calorie counters who realize they’re exceeding their limit, even in a health-food restaurant, often don’t pull back to contain the damage but reason that the day is a loss anyway, so they might as well have fun, piling on desserts and sides they’d otherwise avoid.
First, keep alternative options in mind. For example, people are actually more likely to choose a lower-fat cheesecake when it appears on a menu alongside a high-fat version, almost as if picturing that dense serving of after-dinner indulgence makes the lighter choice more appealing.
Having a real sense of serving size and calorie content can help too. Most studies suggest that only 10% to 20% of people really know how to count calories. When the rest of us bother to guess, we usually lowball what’s in a meal by as much as 45%.
Order what you want but push your plate away while you’ve still got a sizable portion left. If you have to ask the waiter to clear the plate so you’re not tempted to dig back in, do so.
Finally, don’t be too pure. There’s nothing that makes food harder to resist than being told you can never have it. The occasional, moderate-size serving of warm chocolate cake or McDonald’s fries is not going to kill you. And in case you forgot, it will be utterly delicious.
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