We Don't Know How Many Calories We're Eating

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Think about your last meal from a fast food restaurant, whatever it was. (If your answer is a snide "I never eat fast food," well congratulations to you and yours, and please see yourself out of this article.) I want you to take a guess as to how many calories were in that meal. Go ahead and write it down. Now, grab that calculator widget on your phone and multiply that number by .20. And then add that newly-created number to your initial calorie guess. That, most likely, is how many calories you actually ingested during that traipse through FastFoodLand.

At least those are the findings from this new study from Harvard Medical School. The survey asked about 3,400 "adults, teens, and parents of school-age children" about how many calories they believed they ate from a meal at a variety of fast food places. When the researchers figured out the actual caloric content of the meals they listed, they found out that we're all vastly underestimating the amount of calories that are really in these things. To be precise, adults underestimate by 20%, the oddly-categorized "parents of school-age children" by 23%, and teens by a whopping 34%. This is a scary proposition, but what might be even scarier is the fact that one-fourth of the participants underestimated their actual caloric intake by at least 500 calories.

(Also of note: Those eating at Subway underestimated the calories in their meals more drastically than any other fast food chain, most likely because the sandwich maker's "Eat Fresh" motto has tricked consumers into thinking that every item there is healthy, even the meatballs and mayonnaise, which are decidedly not.)

The problem is an obvious one. Seeing as we already can't completely trust the calorie listings on fast food menus, we're left to our own devices trying to figure out what's in these meals. And we are failing miserably. There are ways to help assist us, however.

For us adults out there, we have it easy. Smartphone apps like Calorie Counter App by MyFitnessPal.com are great tools to have at your disposal. For this particular one, simply plug in what you're thinking of eating -- this app has a database of over two millions foods -- and make your determination from there. But for the younger generation, things are a little tricker. Not so much because of their inability to use smartphones, which they most certainly can do (and probably better than us), but because teen years are generally spent eating anything and everything they can get their hands on as they go through their growth spurt. The question, then, is how do we get them to care?

Old-fashioned schooling can provide a portion of the answer. Back in 2006, NPR told this story of how a teacher in Philadelphia taught his kids about the science of calories. His trick was taking bits of junk food and setting them on fire, displaying the amount of energy in a single piece:

As the flame grows, Cifelli asks them to describe what they see. They talk among themselves about the smoke and the flame, then Cifelli shows them that the curl is burning on its own. He's no longer lighting it with a flame from below. "What does this tell us?" Cifelli asks. "It shows us that the cheese curl has energy," answers a student.

From there, he explained which calories are good and which are bad, hoping to impart to the kids an understanding of what they should be putting into their own system. But while science classes can help a child's understanding, the most important lessons they learn come after the final bell rings for the day.

If you're a parent, one of the key things to keep in mind when teaching your kids about calories is not giving them the impression that they are "bad." They aren't, really. They are necessary. You don't want to get your child to start "counting calories," as that might merely give them a complex about eating, which is not something you want to instill at a young, impressionable age.

Instead, it's important to steer them in the direction of "good" calories. This could be accomplished by utilizing a homemade food chart where the kids must detail what they ate throughout the day, or by going through the items in the fridge and reading labels, teaching them what to look for.

But the best and simplest way to teach your child how to eat properly is the oldest way of teaching your child how to do anything: Through example. Eat healthy and stay away from fast food, and your kids will too.

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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