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A Simple Problem That Shows Just Why We Need Posted Calorie Counts

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Quick, how many calories would you say are in an order of cheese fries with a side of accompanying ranch dressing? What about a burger and plain fries? Keep those numbers in your head for a minute, you'll need them to solve this problem.

The new calorie count regulations handed down by the FDA today promise posted calorie counts within the year at chain restaurants and within two years at vending machines. So why do we need them so badly?

Well, the first reason is that we're eating out more — the FDA estimates that Americans eat an average of 1/3 of their total calories out (up from just under 1/5 in the '70s). But there's also another reason: Because, as study after study has shown, Americans are completely, often almost hilariously, incompetent at estimating how many calories are in their orders.


Need proof? Remember those numbers you came up with for that order of cheese fries with ranch or a plain burger and fries? Here are the actual numbers, via the Washington Post's Wonkblog, for both the real calorie counts and the average estimated ones for a variety of common orders from a study in the American Journal of Public Health:


The burger and fries comes in at around 1,250, but the cheese fries are over 3,000 — more than the average total recommend daily calories of 2,000. Now even if you guessed the right count for one of them, would you really have guessed that cheese fries alone would be more than double the count of a burger and fries together?

I sure didn't. I was in the ballpark for the burger and fries, but not even close on the cheese fries. But that's the thing about calorie counts: They are not intuitive, not even a little bit. I don't know whether having those numbers posted will change the way we order, but it will certainly change the way we think about it.


Top image: pointnshoot