Susan Roberts is not your typical frustrated dieter.
First of all, she's a professor of nutrition and a professor of psychiatry at Tufts University, who has been studying weight loss for almost 20 years. Secondly, she's the author of the immensely popular and scientifically praised The "i" Diet. As part of researching the book, and as a "weight challenged person" herself, she went on her own plan. It worked for the home-cooked menus. It didn't when she tried a second, more convenient version she was developing using calorie-equivalent packaged and restaurant foods.
"I figured it was the sodium," she tells me from her lab, "but after a while, I thought, this isn't right." Instead of drowning her sorrows in something fudgy, she gathered up 39 of her favorite frozen diet meals and weight-friendly restaurant dishes, and threw them into her bomb calorimeter-a fancy machine that burns up grub just like your body and spits out an inarguably accurate calorie count.
If "bomb" has a certain ring, the results were explosive enough to make headlines: The calories listed for the frozen skinny meals (like Lean Cuisine and Weight Watchers) were wrong, on average, by 8 percent; the "low cal" restaurant fare (Taco Bell's express taco salad, for example, Wendy's grilled chicken wrap, Denny's dry toast) by 18 percent. In a few cases the actual counts were double what they were supposed to be. And guess which direction all these numbers were off in? Does the bank ever err in your favor?
Are companies sneakily lowering their calorie counts to seduce us into gobbling their wares?
Roberts is not the first to expose labels for lying (remember Pirate's Booty?) Slow down, says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Roberts's data is limited. When we do those studies, we use multiple samples from multiple restaurants in multiple cities. And we generally find the nutrition information accurate. Mostly the errors are from the portions served." This, mind you, is from an organization that goes after the food industry like a raging pit pull.
Wootan points out that, because of agricultural and processing variances, calorie counts listed on labels are much less precise than we'd like to believe. In fact, for better or for worse, the FDA allows a 20 percent margin of error on the numbers food companies report.
Who should a dieter trust?
Roberts-who agrees her study was small-is following up with a larger one. In the meantime, she points out that for many women, a mere 5 percent of calorie overage per day can pack on an additional 10 pounds a year.
No question, companies should be held accountable for accurately labeling their foods. But this is also a moment to step back and ask whether we, as consumers, are going a bit off the rails with all this calorie counting. It would be nice to get back to the days when mom's piping hot apple pie was simply delicious and filling, not a numerical calculation. And we'd probably be more in tune with our hunger signals if we didn't open a menu and automatically zip-code it into "okay" and "no go" areas. Preliminary research suggests that women who worry about eating for weight control have more stress damage to their DNA than those who don't. Certainly, running a mental ticker tape every time you take a mouthful, can't be calming.
So, how to slim down without going calorie crazy?
* Make your own food: "It's really hard to lose weight when you eat out all the time," says Roberts, whose website offers sample menus.
* Watch out for the "come with" side dishes when dining out. In Roberts's study, several restaurants offered freebees that added on as many calories as the entrée itself.
* Go with your gut-the intuitve one. You pretty much know the difference between healthy and junk. "Fifty or 100 calories here and there is not the reason for the obesity problem," says Wooten. "No matter what, the salad is still a better starter than the fried mozzarella sticks."
If tracking numbers helps you, think in relative terms. "Mentally note, 'OK, there could be 10 or 20 percent more calories than the label or menu says,'; then pick the lower deal," recommends Alice Domar, PhD, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, and coauthor of Live a Little! Breaking the rules won't break your health. And if you happen to be at the Krispy Kreme counter at Penn Station, which Domar often is, that means choosing the original glazed (200 calories) over the Caramel Kreme Crunch (380). "The key is, overall moderation with an occasional treat. Sometimes," she says, "you've just got to live a lot."
What do you think about calorie counting? Is it helpful? Or have we gotten carried away?
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