Fast Food Math

By Charlyn Fargo

March 1, 2012 8 min read

OK, so your favorite fast food restaurant now posts the calorie count of your favorite sandwich. That's a good thing. However, a new study finds that nutritional information can be confusing to diners if they don't read the fine print when making healthy meal choices.

In the study, the scientists examined the calorie listings for 200 food items on menu boards from 12 restaurant chains in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem. Too often, calorie counts were listed for combo meals or meals intended to serve multiple people or had wide ranges in what the calorie count might be.

For example, a bucket of chicken was listed as having 3,240 to 12,360 calories, but the menu board did not provide enough information for consumers to determine the number of pieces of chicken in a serving size. A listing for a sandwich combo meal said it ranged from 500 to 2,080 calories. However, no information was provided on how to order within the lower range of this menu item.

Under federal law, restaurants with 20 or more locations must provide calorie data and additional nutritional information for menu items and self-serve foods. Although the calorie information complied with U.S. labeling rules, consumers may have a tough time making sense of much of it, the study found.

"Menu postings for individual servings are easily understood, but complex math skills are needed to interpret meals designed to serve more than one person," wrote study author Elizabeth Gross Cohn, an assistant professor at the Columbia University School of Nursing, and colleagues. "In some items, calories doubled depending on flavor, and the calorie posting did not give enough information to make healthier selections."

Researchers suggested that calorie listings should do more than merely comply; they should also take into account what level of "math literacy" is needed to make use of the information. In a revised system, a breakfast sandwich, for example, would be listed as "Egg with ham/bacon/sausage: 350/550/750," so consumers could know exactly how many calories various options would add.

"In low-income communities with a high density of chain restaurants and where educational attainment of consumers may be low, simplifying calorie postings and minimizing the math required to calculate calories would increase menu-board utility," the researchers wrote.

Information courtesy the Journal of Urban Health and Columbia University Medical Center.


Q: I'm trying to lose weight, but each afternoon around 4 p.m., my energy hits a slump and I end up eating junk food. How will I ever lose weight?

A: It sounds like you're running out of fuel. Eating enough and choosing the right foods are two keys to maintaining energy while you're trying to lose weight. If your lunch is too light because you're either skipping it or trying too hard to cut back, it won't provide enough energy to get you through the afternoon.

Many people find that getting about a quarter to a third of total daily calorie needs at lunch works well. Calorie needs vary, but as an example, someone keeping calories to 1600 a day for weight loss might aim for 400 to 500 calories at lunch (depending on how much snacking they prefer to do and how they spread out meal times). That's why a diet frozen meal, plain cup of soup, or energy bar usually won't suffice.

Another possibility relates to the types of foods you choose for lunch. It's possible that you may not be eating enough protein for lunch. If your lunch is nothing but refined carbohydrates (whether sweets or a low-fiber grain like a large bagel) or plain vegetables or salad with no protein, your blood sugar may go up and down again within a few hours, leaving you feeling pretty run-down. To avoid an afternoon slump, make sure your lunch includes some healthy protein (lean meat, poultry or seafood, low-fat dairy, or a full serving of beans or nuts).

Focus your lunch around whole grains plus vegetables and/or fruit to provide energy that lasts. A balanced lunch needn't be high in calories if you don't load up on sweets or high-fat options. If you prefer a smaller lunch or still hit a slump with an improved lunch, get pro-active. Plan a small but nutrient-rich snack for a half-hour or so before the energy slump usually comes. Keep the snack to 100 or 200 calories of foods that slowly release energy; choose fruit, whole grains, nuts or yogurt. And make sure you're drinking enough water, since if you get dehydrated that can also leave you feeling zapped.

Information courtesy the American Institute for Cancer Research.


Pasta has to be one of my favorite foods. Cooking Light magazine offers a Cheesy Pasta Bake (with ground turkey and turkey sausage) that is a great mid-week dinner. Prepare it the night before, and all you have to do is slide it in the oven for a quick, healthy dinner.

Cheesy Pasta Bake

—14 ounces uncooked ziti or mostaccioli
—12 ounces ground turkey breast
—8 ounces sweet turkey Italian sausage, casings removed
—Cooking spray
—1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
—2 cups chopped onion
—1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
—6 garlic cloves, minced
—1/2 cup red wine
—5 cups lower-sodium marinara sauce
—1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
—6 ounces whole milk mozzarella, thinly sliced
—2 ounces grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, divided
—2 tablespoons small basil leaves or torn basil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cook pasta according to package directions, omitting salt and fat. Drain and set aside.

Place turkey and sausage in medium bowl — mix well to combine. Heat a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Coat pan with cooking spray. Add turkey mixture to pan; cook 8 minutes or until browned, stirring to crumble. Remove from pan. Add oil to pan; swirl to coat. Add onion and pepper; saute 4 minutes. Add garlic and saute 5 minutes. Add wine and cook for 4 minutes until the liquid almost evaporates. Stir in pasta, turkey mixture, marinara sauce and 1/2 cup basil. Spoon mixture in 13-by-9-inch baking dish coated with cooking spray. Top with mozzarella and Parmigiano. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes or until cheese begins to brown.

Remove from oven; sprinkle with basil leaves and the remaining 1/4 cup Parmigiano. Serves eight. (Serving size: about 1 1/2 cups)

Per serving: 492 calories, 30.2 g protein, 88 g carbohydrate, 14.2 g fat, 72 mg cholesterol, 2.4 g fiber, 708 mg sodium

Charlyn Fargo is a registered dietitian from Springfield, Ill. For comments or questions, contact her at [email protected] To find out more about Charlyn Fargo and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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