Even people who are mindful of nutrition and pay attention to the calorie data posted on menus may have a tough time using the information to make smarter choices. At least that’s the conclusion of a new study from the Columbia University School of Nursing.

To gather data, volunteers equipped with digital cameras took 200 photos from 70 menus at 12 chains in New York City. While most of the information was compliant with a law passed in 2010 requiring restaurants with 20 or more locations to provide nutrition facts, the figures available didn’t provide enough info to allow consumers make healthier choices. The biggest problems they found involved figuring out what constitutes a single serving, and crunching the numbers for items that include multiple servings, which involved most of the items the group recorded. For example:

A bucket of chicken was listed as 3,240 to 12,360 calories, but the menu board didn’t provide enough information to determine how many pieces constitute one serving.

A hero combo meal ranged from 500 to 2,080 calories, but no information was provided on how a customer could order to achieve the lower calorie range.

Specialty pizzas stated wide calorie ranges with no clear explanation as to why.

My personal favorite place to get ‘fresh food fast’ is Chipotle and I have noticed that the menu boards list very wide calorie ranges for burritos, tacos, and even salads. The other day the disparity even caught my hubby Jack’s eye, who turned to me to ask what made the high numbers so high; was it the flour tortilla, the meat, the cheese…. Without having the breakdown of every item in front of me I had to guess (with people behind us we didn’t have time to whip out our smart phones for more detail), but after we sat down I pulled up the info.

My presumption that getting a “naked” burrito would save Jack the most calories was right on target. The tortilla alone provides 290 calories, and the equivalent of about three slices of white bread worth of carbs. In fact, aside from the chips it’s the highest calorie ingredient on the menu. But some of the other numbers are a little tricky. And it’s important to keep in mind that quality can count more than calories. For example, guacamole will add 150 calories to your order versus 120 for sour cream, but the guac is a far healthier option. Based on all the nutrition facts from the Chipotle web site here are my calculations for the highest, least healthy and lowest, most healthy selections:

HIGHEST - Carnitas Burrito
Tortilla – 290
Rice – 130
Pinto beans – 120 (same as black beans, but made with animal fat and higher in sodium)
Fajita veggies – 20
Carnitas – 190 (same as chicken and steak but higher in fat, saturated fat and sodium)
Mild salsa – 20
Corn salsa – 80
Cheese – 100
Sour cream – 120
Guacamole – 150
Lettuce – 5
TOTAL: 1,225 (note: with chips and salsa 1,815)

LOWEST – Vegetarian Fajita Burrito Bowl
No rice - 0
Black beans – 120 (11 grams of fiber, 7 grams of protein)
Fajita veggies – 20
Mild salsa – 20
Corn salsa – 80 (note: corn counts as a whole grain; the other option is to omit the corn salsa and add brown rice for an additional 50 calories)
Guacamole – 150 (bonus: in addition to the heart healthy fat, antioxidants, potassium and vitamin E guac is free with a veggie order, yay!)
Extra lettuce – 10
TOTAL: 400

Without the chips a carnitas burrito packs THREE times the calories of a veggie burrito bowl. I think it’s obvious that it would be a lot more, but did you guess that it would be over 800 calories more (about half a day’s worth of calories for most women)?

I think the take home message here is that if you dine out often, or even occasionally, check the numbers now. Take a few minutes tonight to review the web sites of the places you frequent. Pick out a few favorite meals, find out how to modify them to create the best balance, and write them down to stash in your wallet, or note them in your cell phone. Doing a little homework today will take the guesswork out when you’re in the order line and can prevent you from over or underestimating what’s on your plate.

What’s your take on this topic? Do you get confused by fast food facts? Please share your thoughts or tweet them to @cynthiasass and @Shape_Magazine.

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