Barbara Shelly

How to avoid the tyranny of the calorie count

Coming soon to a restaurant near you, calorie counts.
Coming soon to a restaurant near you, calorie counts. The Associated Press

I’ve never been one to count calories. In my opinion, few things suck the joy of a day more effectively than obsessing whether a hit of honey in your morning tea or a scoop of ice cream after dinner is going to put you over the limit.

But some calorie information is simply too in-your-face to be ignored. I used to munch happily on buttered popcorn whenever I went to a movie. Then I read the vital statistics. I don’t even remember the number, but I do recall something about a good-sized tub of popcorn with butter-flavored oil being the equivalent of three fast food cheeseburgers and a couple of sticks of butter. Haven’t had popcorn at the movies since.

I bring this up because in coming months a lot of restaurants and some other places will begin posting calorie counts as a result of Food and Drug Administration regulations. There is debate about whether this information will make much difference. I support the move and hope it matters, but I have my doubts.

I suspect that the counts will receive the most attention from customers who already are calorie conscious. If you know, for instance, that 1,600 to 2,400 calories is the recommended daily allowance for most Americans, you might not order that double whopper with cheese at Burger King with 1,070 calories. But a lot of people don’t have information on how many calories a day they’re supposed to consume. And a lot of people will get the double whopper anyway, figuring they’ll compensate another time. Like, right. Me, I’d split the difference and go with just a whopper, not a double.

The New York Times has a fun feature on line showing some combinations of what it takes to get to 2,000 calories. The bottom line is, not much, especially if you eat out a lot, as Americans tend to do. A classic skillet breakfast at Ihop with sausage and a glass of orange juice will get you there. And if you think you can avoid excess by going upscale, think again. The cowboy ribeye at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse is listed at 1,690 calories.

Some people will be able to order a 1,000-calorie meal at a chain restaurant and defiantly savor every bite. The avoidance crowd, which is where I place myself, has a few options. We can fake near-sightedness and not see the menu. We can order drinks at the bar, rather than from a menu at the table. We can eat at a family-run restaurant, because the calorie-posting requirements are for chains with 20 or more restaurants.

Or we can eat at home, where no one will bother us with calorie counts and where, if one cooks with simple, unprocessed ingredients and cuts down on fats and sugar, the counts will be lower anyway.

Bon appetit.