Confused by Restaurant Calorie Counts?
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My hubby and I were standing in line at Chipotle the other day (yup, I eat there—check out a pic of my go-to order here) when he noted the drastic calorie range for a salad on the menu board: 155 to 823, nearly a 700-calorie difference depending on what you choose as you make your way down the line.

According to some reports, this is one reason why many establishments are holding off on posting calorie counts until the federal mandate, which is part of the Affordable Care Act, goes into effect. When it does, chains with 20 restaurants or more will be required to list calories on menus, including estimates for meal combinations. That means those broad ranges won’t be going away, especially for foods with customized toppings such as sub sandwiches, pizza, and baked potatoes.

That’s why the handy-dandy nutrition calculators on many restaurants’ websites are so valuable. Using Chipotle’s, I calculated the variance between these two meals:

Veggie Burrito (made with flour tortilla, brown rice, black beans, fajita veggies, fresh tomato salsa, sour cream, cheese, and lettuce)
Calories: 835
Fat: 33 g
Saturated Fat: 16 g
Carbs: 109 g
Protein: 29 g
Fiber: 18 g
Sodium: 1,920 mg

Veggie Burrito Bowl (made with with no rice, black beans, fajita veggies, fresh tomato salsa, corn salsa—corn counts as a whole grain!—lettuce, and guacamole. This is my standard order.)
Calories: 395
Fat: 16 g
Saturated Fat: 2 g
Carbs: 55 g
Protein: 14 g
Fiber: 23 g
Sodium: 1,490 mg

Pretty big difference, huh? At 23 grams of fiber, half the carbs, and a huge reduction in saturated fat (and you still get to eat guacamole!), this meal trade-off will leave you feeling perfectly satisfied, but not sluggish.

If you dine out often, take a few minutes to check out the digits on your usual order and how they might change if you made a few simple swaps. And if your favorite eatery hasn't published the info yet, visit a sleuth site like Calorie King. While weight control is much more complex than calories in versus calories out (check out my previous post on that subject here), and I don't personally advocate calorie counting, having access to restaurant nutrition info can play a major role in helping you choose healthier meals.

What’s your take on this topic? Do the wide ranges on menu board confuse you? Do you go online to look up the nutrition facts for your usual order? Please tweet your thoughts to @cynthiasass and @Shape_Magazine.

Confused by Restaurant Calorie Counts? -2

Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.

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