Menus now showing calories and fat - a help or a hindrance?

Emma Brown | 12 Nov, 2013

You may have noticed that a lot of chain restaurants and pubs are now showing the calories and fat on the menu, so we know what we're eating before we order it. This is great for us dieters as it means we can still eat out, but without worrying we've eaten too many calories and how we'll record it in our food diaries.

We're continually updating our 'Eating Out' section so you can add food from these popular restaurants straight into your food diary, without having to remember the calories to manually add later. We have the nutritional information for Wetherspoons, Pizza Express, Harvester, Pizza Hut and many more. We also have all the popular coffee shops such as Starbucks, Costa and Caffe Nero to help you keep on track with your diet and take the stress out of eating out.

But, what if the calories are wrong?

It's great that more restaurants are starting to provide the nutritional information but, I don't know about you, I often wonder ''what if the calories are wrong? And how can they be so sure each dish is the same?'' In most cases, a number of dishes will have been analysed so they take an average figure. Restaurants also have strict guidelines to follow on portion control and ingredient weight used in each dish (for profitability!), but as it relies on individuals to prepare it, there is likely to be a small degree of variance. It is fair to say though that a calorie estimate even if it is 50 calories out is better than no guide at all! Here are a few tips to help:

  • Firstly remember the calories on the menu are only ever an estimate. If you want to be super vigilant, save a few extra calories to compensate if they do under calculate and over serve.
  • Be careful about dishes that come with sides. Some places will only show the calories of the main component, e.g. curry, but not actually list the calories for the rice, naans or popudums that come with it. Read carefully and ask your waiter if you're unsure.
  • Remember to count any sauces on top of your meal. If the place you are eating in lists the calories for the dips and sauces, keep a note of what you've had and add it on top of the meal calories. If not, here's the most popular...
  1. Tomato Ketchup - 18 cals per tbsp
  2. Mayonnaise - 109 cals per tbsp
  3. BBQ Sauce - 75 cals per tbsp (approx)
  4. Brown Sauce - 18 cals per tbsp
  5. Tartare Sauce - 45 cals per tbsp
  • Watch your drink too. When you're eating out you also drink - whether it be alcoholic or soft, they all have calories (unless it's water!). Remember to add these up too, and opt for 'Diet' versions where you can to save hundreds of calories.

If the restaurant or pub doesn't list the calories on the menu, you can still save calories by being menu savvy! Here are our top handy hints when ordering:

  1. Avoid food which comes in a cream sauce, uses coconut milk, crème fraiche, cheese, butter, batter etc. These will be high in calories and fat.
  2. If your meal is carb based e.g. pasta, don't order garlic bread to come with it. 'Double carbing' not only adds extra calories where not needed, but also can make you feel over full and bloated.
  3. Watch your portion sizes and stop when you're full (easier said than done I know!) If it's something like dessert, go halves with your friend and the calories are instantly cut.
  4. Always ask for dressings / sauces on the side and use sparingly.
  5. Try and choose dishes which don't come in a sauce so you can see what's in your meal. You can then add any sauces / gravy you want after.

Also remember your proportions and portions! Some tips:

  1. Salad or vegetables - should fill half your plate (divide the other half evenly between protein food and carbs).
  2. Cooked pasta or rice - clench your fist to get an idea of the volume
  3. Beef / Pork / Lamb - size of your smart phone / iPhone
  4. Fish fillet - length of a reading glasses case
  5. Chicken breast - size of your smart phone /iPhone 
  6. Beans - 3 heaped tablespoons
  7. Cheese - size of a small matchbox
  8. Bread roll - small enough to fit inside a standard wine glass (before you fill it obviously!)

Finally, enjoy your meal out! If the calories are slightly wrong, or they don't give you any information, the best thing to do is give an estimate (more than you think to be on the safe side) and add it to your food diary. If you've gone over your calories, don't worry - draw a line and start again tomorrow. One meal out won't ruin your diet or weight loss, providing you get back on track the next day.

Nutritionist Emma Brown, MSc Human Nutrition is passionate about how food science applies to the human body, and how the nutrients in what we eat affect us and ultimately have an impact on our health.