For the most part, Americans, regardless of their weight or sex, underestimate the number of calories contained in fast-food meals. Nothing leads us to assume that we are superior to them at this task.
Researchers asked 105 people who had just finished eating lunch at a fast-food restaurant to evaluate the number of calories they had just ingested. They were also asked to reveal their weight and height. The researchers compared their estimates with the actual calorie content of the meals. The results are shocking. The people who had eaten a larger meal estimated having ingested an average of 675 calories, while their meal contained 1188 calories (a difference of 513 calories). Those who had eaten a smaller meal had estimated their portion contained 419 calories, while their meal really contained 514 calories (a difference of 95 calories). People suffering from weight problems were also more susceptible to have eaten a larger meal than those of average weight, and to ingest a greater amount of calories. That is to say 957 and 683 calories respectively.
In another study, researchers asked 40 university students to estimate the calorie content of 15 meals of various sizes, consisting of chicken nuggets, fries and cola. Even if they are more aware of the importance of nutrition, they were unable to do better than those accustomed to fast-food. The students estimated that the largest portion contained 1000 calories while it actually contained 1382. Their approximation was better for the smaller portion, estimating 631 calories while it actually contained 655 calories.
According to experts, this does not stem from a lack of knowledge, nor from a motivation to lie about what we eat, but instead, it is a flawed perception that we cannot control. The quantity of food in a plate can easily fool people. As the portion sizes keep increasing, it becomes more difficult to evaluate what represents a normal portion. For example, you simply need to compare the size of the first cola bottles with the ones we find on the shelves today, to realize how some portions seem to have literally exploded in size.
Nutrition experts recommend that people who have to eat lunch in restaurants choose smaller portions, ask for smaller plates, if possible, and look closely at the nutritional information when it is available to them. Because we do not know how foods are prepared in restaurants, or what their exact contents are, it is preferable to limit ourselves to smaller portions. Even if this means grabbing a snack in the afternoon, if you feel a bit peckish.