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Dieters Beware: Calorie Counts Analyzed for One Story Are Reportedly Wrong, Except at Subway

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One intrepid New York Times reporter set out to find out how accurate posted calorie counts are for typical foods. He teamed up with some local scientists to analyze an average day's worth of food, only to discover that the labels didn't generally match reality.

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Many of us who have had to battle our own propensity toward fatness have turned to calorie counting. Which is great, in principle: If you can just control how much food your cram down your slop hole, you can control how much fat your body distributes to unsightly places.

In fact, it's such a good idea that several states already mandate the posting of calories, and federal law soon spread the requirement across the country for chain restaurants. Of course, being able to know that the calorie counts listed on the foods are accurate would be helpful to that end. So it's a little sad that the "healthy" vegetarian sandwich he picked up had almost twice as many calories as was claimed. The rest tended to understate their caloric capacity by between 10 percent and 15 percent, which seems reasonable but is still troubling. The only big winner in this bit of fact-checking is Subway, which managed to provide a sandwich that was actually under the posted calories. Of course, the writer is correct in pointing out that it hardly was a scientific study, with far too small of a sample size.

Thankfully, researchers at Tufts already have conducted similar research and their findings jibe pretty closely with what we're seeing in this story. In 2011, they sampled 42 restaurants, including fast food and sit-down locations.

Like this story, they found that fast-food chains tend to adhere fairly closely to their posted calorie counts. That makes a great deal of sense because fast food, for all its health failings, tends to be standardized, and there's a strong financial motive for not giving the customer even one ounce of extra anything. Everyone else fared worse on calorie counts, particularly among "diet" items, which registered all over the place.

The most depressing bit of all of this is that those tiny variations add up. According to one Tufts researcher, even 100 calories extra a day can add up to a whopping 10 pounds extra in a year. The New York Times piece also pointed out something else to keep in mind: There's really no local authority that verifies posted calorie counts and, as you can see from the video, doing so would be a time-intensive and likely expensive process.

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