UF study: Most people clueless about calories, so menu rules help little


Published: Friday, November 1, 2013 at 11:50 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 1, 2013 at 11:50 a.m.

Even though obesity is a growing concern in the U.S., most people still tend to underestimate how many calories they need each day, according to a University of Florida study.

The study, published in the most recent issue of the Journal of Education and Behavior, surveyed 978 people in Gainesville, from visitors and staff at UF Health Shands Hospital eating at the hospital cafeteria to students and people at UF basketball games, said Lauren Headrick, who led the survey in 2011 as a graduate student in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.

She and a few of her classmates came up with the idea for the survey to test the effect of the national menu laws in 2010, which made it mandatory for chain restaurants with 20 or more outlets to list the calories on poster-board menus.

"We just wanted to start with, ‘Does it mean anything to them?' " Headrick said. "We thought, ‘Is this really going to be useful to people if they have no idea what they need for the day?'?"

Headrick noted that a lot of places weren't following the law, but that some, such as McDonalds and Panera Bread, were. "Smart vending machines" also provide a computer display next to the machines with the sodium and fat content of food selections.

The researchers asked people their height, weight and physical activity level, and then how many calories they thought they needed daily. The researchers used Department of Agriculture standards to determine peoples' needed caloric intakes, which anyone can do for him or herself at myplate.gov.

"We wanted to see if people who diet or work in a health-related field have a better idea (of how many calories they need)," Headrick said. "What really shocked us is that those (who) work in health care fields don't."

Another surprise was that people with higher BMIs, body-mass index levels, underestimated their daily caloric needs.

"If they are obese, they have probably tried dieting in the past … so they are basing that number on a dieting number," Headrick said, adding that some people also probably overestimated their activity levels, which would inflate their caloric needs.

Barring differences in height and weight, the average adult woman needs about 2,000 calories per day, and the average man 2,500, Headrick said.

"If you're smaller or elderly, your numbers will be lower," Headrick added. "If you are an athlete, your numbers will be above that. The more muscles you have more energy you need."

Headrick said despite the nation's obsession with calorie counting, this isn't usually a healthy approach, even though she personally stopped eating the mac and cheese at Panera once she found out one cup contained 500 calories.

Some chain restaurants have introduced smaller portions on their menus: The Cheesecake Factory, for example, now has "small plates & snacks," and T.G.I. Friday's has "right portion, right price" options.

For most people, Headrick continued, "the biggest thing is concentrating on the type of food rather than the numbers."

That means that half your plate should be filled with fruits and veggies, and the other two quarters, equal parts starch and protein, Headrick added.

"We really feel that educating the public on what a healthy meal looks like is more important than putting the numbers on there when people don't have any idea what those numbers mean."

That's the same message Headrick, who is now state coordinator for Florida's Farm to School Partnership, tries to convey to her students.

"The last thing we want to do is for kids to get bogged down with the numbers. We don't talk about calories with the kids at all," Headrick said. "We do school gardens, and we teach them about where their food comes from and all the different types of food groups. We try to focus on health content."

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or kristine.crane@gvillesun.com.

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

▲ Return to Top