October 1, 2007

McSubway project: Virtuous diners eat more

When you go to Subway and order the lite turkey sub with no mayonnaise and no cheese, do you, then, reward yourself and munch down on chips and cookies as well?

If you do, you are not alone. And that's trouble.

In today's USAToday.com, Brain Wansink says, "There's a health halo that surrounds a lot of the foods at restaurants like Subway that leads people to overeat on side dishes and grossly underestimate the number of calories they consume."

The director of Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab in Ithaca, N.Y created the 'McSubway Project,' a series of studies that examine the habits of fast-food customers. Much of the research compares foods at McDonald's and Subway, which advertises that it has more healthful options.

What he found was diners significantly underestimate the calories at Subway and McDonald's, but underestimate much more at Subway.

Though Subway has a health halo, "there's also a health shadow that's cast on McDonald's. People know what they are eating may be indulgent, so they come much closer to estimating the right number of calories," says Wansink, the author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.

People who consumed about 1,327 calories at a meal underestimated the calories by an average of 484 at McDonald's and 681 at Subway.

"There's a double curse to the health halo because you grossly underestimate the calories, and you overeat afterward because you think you deserve it," Wansink says.

Without help, diners cannot figure out how many calories they are eating and what's good for them. One alternative is not to eat at Subway or McDonald's. But a better way would be to figure out how to help Americans eat appropriately at restaurants. Starting with better choices, clear, posted information, and a government-led program to make the dining experience healthier. What to we have to lose?

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