Calorie Counts and Nutrition: Can High-Calorie Meals Be Healthy?

While calorie counts can help diners decide what to order, they only provide one part of the nutritional picture of a menu item.

While calorie counts can help diners decide what to order, they only provide one part of the nutritional picture of a menu item. Image source: Unsplash user Toa Heftiba.

For many years, conventional nutrition has told us to watch our caloric intake. As such, people have come to view the number of calories in a food as the most significant measure of its nutritional value. Lower calorie foods have been prized, while high-calorie foods have been vilified.

As nutritional science deepens and expands, however, a more holistic picture of food is emerging. We are beginning to understand that calorie counts may not be the primary mark of a healthy meal or snack as we once thought. Instead, fat, sugar, protein content, vitamins, and minerals hold more weight. While calories indeed tell us how much energy a given food will provide, it is only one part of the complete picture.

With the recently implemented menu labeling law that requires restaurant, cafe, bakery, and convenience store chains with 20 or more locations to provide calorie counts on their menus, many restaurant owners and chefs are worried their higher calorie menu items may not be as popular as they once were. So, let’s take a look at some frequently asked questions about the link between calorie counts and nutrition so your restaurant can decide how to optimize its menu for the best sales while keeping customers happy.

#1: Can High-Calorie Meals be Healthy?

Yes! In fact, some of the healthiest foods on earth are calorie-dense, such as avocados, olive oil, nuts, and seeds. These foods are high in healthy fats, like omega 3s and omega 6s, as well as key vitamins and minerals our bodies need. So, just because a food is high in calories does not necessarily mean it is unhealthy.

Generally speaking, the American public is fairly well-informed about the benefits of these healthy, high-calorie foods, and the mentality around calories is shifting. More people understand that deep-fried and/or processed foods aren’t as good for you as fresh, whole foods that come from nature.

This is one of the reasons why the FDA has required that restaurants provide additional nutrition information, including vitamin and mineral content, along with calorie counts. Doing so provides a more complete nutritional profile for any given menu item than if you simply included a calorie count.

If you do have healthy, high-calorie items on your menu, you may want to consider highlighting their nutritional virtues by providing nutrient content claims (like “high-fiber” or “low-sugar”) on your menu. This way, you draw attention to the positive aspects of the item so diners can make a healthy decision based on more than just a calorie count.

#2: Will Providing Calorie Counts Change What Customers Order?

Since the menu labeling legislation just came into effect, it is difficult to say how calorie counts will change the way people order. In theory, providing calorie counts should make people consider what they order more carefully and perhaps even motivate more people to choose low-calorie items. While this will likely be the case for some people, things may not actually change much for others.

What we do know is that over 50% of Americans want access to calorie information, so perhaps for those 50%, calorie information will impact what they order. Some studies suggest, however, that calorie counts may not actually encourage people to change what they order or make healthier decisions. What matters, though, is that they have the data they need to feel informed about the food they are eating.

#3: Should I Change High-Calorie Menu Items or Remove Them?  

If you’ve just added calories to your menu, it may be smart to wait and see what the trends are before you take anything off your menu. After all, those high-calorie dishes could be drawing people to your restaurant.

Over time, if you notice that one of your high-calorie dishes isn’t being ordered as often, then perhaps you can tweak the recipe to reduce the calorie count. Here are a few ideas to reduce calories counts in foods without completely compromising flavor:

  • Bake instead of deep frying: Fats like oils are calorically dense, and a lot of oil is absorbed in deep-fried foods, dramatically increasing their calorie counts. Try drizzling foods with oil and roasting in a high-heat oven for a similar crunchy result with a fraction of the calories.
  • Replace fattier cuts of meat with leaner options: While fatty cuts of meat are very flavorful, if you are looking to cut calories, try choosing a leaner version (i.e. sirloin tip side steak instead of ribeye). Remember that leaner meats tend to be tougher, so marinating and tenderizing will likely be necessary.  
  • Change the composition on the plate: By increasing the vegetables and decreasing the fattier items like meats and oils, you’ll significantly reduce the calorie count while adding vitamins and minerals to the dish.
  • Reduce the portion size: Offering smaller portions is a great way to slash calories while maintaining the integrity of a dish. Servings are often too large anyway! Plus, you’ll cut down on your food costs a little and less food will go to waste.

Calorie Labeling Made Easy

If you decide to tweak your recipes to reduce their caloric content, you’ll need to reanalyze them to find their new calorie counts. Using an online nutrition analysis software makes this process a whole lot easier. MenuCalc, for instance, allows you to create a duplicate of your existing, high-calorie recipes so you can easily tweak the ingredients, amounts, and instructions without losing your original recipe. Plus, since the calorie and nutrition results are generated instantly, you’ll be able to compare your new recipe with your old one to see how many calories you cut.

While we still don’t really know how much calorie counts on menus will impact the way Americans order food, it’s important to remember that a high calorie count doesn’t necessarily mean a menu item is unhealthy. Still, it doesn’t hurt to try to make menu items healthier. After all, restaurants, bakeries, cafes, and convenience stores have a responsibility to offer healthy options and thorough information for diners so it is easier for them to make good choices when it comes to their food. And remember, when it comes to healthy food, calorie counts are only one part of the equation.

MenuCalc is an online nutrition analysis software that makes it easy and affordable for restaurants to obtain calorie counts and nutrition information for their menu items. To learn more, reach out to one of our expert consultants, try our 15-day free trial, or contact us today.  

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