You're trying to eat healthy in 2009, but won't cut out fast food completely. So you should choose a salad at McDonald's instead of a hamburger, right? Or a muffin instead of a couple of jelly-filled doughnuts at Dunkin' Donuts?
Not if it's the premium Southwestern salad with crispy chicken, or a banana walnut muffin. Both have more calories and fat than those seemingly less healthy counterparts.
But unless you have time to hunt online or in the restaurant for nutrition labels, or carry around a calorie guide, good luck knowing what's healthiest when eating out.
That's where government is starting to step in, including, possibly, in Utah.
To combat fast food's contribution to obesity, New York City and the county that includes Seattle now require chain restaurants to include calorie counts on menu boards. Philadelphia will do the same by 2010, and all of California will by 2011. About 20 more locations are considering similar policies, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Utah health officials aren't considering a menu mandate, saying there wouldn't be the political will in a state that won't require motorcyclists to wear helmets.
"It takes a while for new ideas to be accepted and embraced in our state," said Lynda Blades, physical activity, nutrition and obesity program manager for the Utah Department of Health.
But she expects the concept of menu labeling to be debated as part of this year's update of Utah's anti-obesity plan. "We want people to be empowered to make the healthy choice," Blades said.
Weight gain » Fast food joints are being targeted because studies have linked frequent visits to weight gain. The federal government recommends adults eat 2,000 calories a day, but studies have found it's easy to consume half that in one fast-food meal.
A voluntary menu-labeling effort is expected to be launched this year in Salt Lake County, mirroring Colorado's Smart Meal Seal program. It authorizes the seal for meals of at least two servings of beans, whole grains or vegetables, with 700 calories or less, and no more than 30 percent of fat.
About 200 locations participate, including more than 100 Denver metro McDonald's, said Eric Aakko, director of Colorado's state physical activity and nutrition program. Eligible McDonald's meals include a hamburger, fruit-and-yogurt parfait and apple dippers, or an Asian salad with grilled chicken.
Sales of Smart Meal items have increased, while sales of side orders like fries and cookies have dropped, an analysis found.
"The restaurants still made as much or more money," Aakko said, noting salads are more expensive than fries.
For a similar effort, the Salt Lake Valley Health Department is in talks with local McDonald's franchises, which are "very enthused and supportive," said Barbara Schmidt, the restaurants' Utah spokeswoman.
Calorie count » Beverly Hyatt, the department's health promotion bureau manager, appreciated calorie counts on Burger King's menu board recently in New York, choosing a Whopper Jr. without mayo and skipping the large fries to cut nearly 1,000 calories.
Bombarded by advertising, "consumers are really confused and really oblivious about what's better to eat," Hyatt said.
The Utah Restaurant Association doesn't yet have a stand, but executive director Melba Sine pointed out possible pitfalls: The cost of changing boards, a truth-in-advertising problem when customers personalize orders, and confusing customers with too many messages.
Utah Travel Council sales pitches don't advertise "liquor laws that stink. ... They don't advertise what Utah's problems are," Sine said, offering a comparison. "We want to make [menus] as brief as possible."
Still, by 2011, all Yum!-owned chains, including Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, A&W and Kentucky Fried Chicken, will post calories. Franchise stores, such as those in Utah, usually follow the national lead, said Bruce Garner, regional director of Utah's KFC chains.
But, he noted, "We are not getting customers asking for calorie counts."
Choice » Will customers choose healthier foods based on calories? No, said customers at a Salt Lake City KFC/A&W restaurant recently.
An overweight man who identified himself as Saul was eating a $2.99 meal of chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes, corn, two biscuits and a soda, which he estimated at around 2,000 calories. "It's definitely high. Do I let it bother me? No. I don't choose food based on calories. I choose it based on taste. Taste and value."
Steve Whittaker felt busted, eating his two pieces of chicken, potatoes and gravy and biscuit (an estimated 690 calories). "I just came from my doctor's office who said I need to lower my cholesterol. This totally cancels the hour I spent on the treadmill," he said, noting he had skipped breakfast. "I felt like chicken, so here I am."
Counting fast-food calories
Most chains provide nutrition information online or on brochures in the restaurant. A former Brigham Young University professor has written a fast-food nutrition guide, which is available online through the "books" link at wellsteps.com, called "Stop & Go."
Did you know:
»KFC's Crispy Twister sandwich has 600 calories and 33 grams of fat? Eat the KFC Snacker, honey BBQ instead. It has 210 calories, 3 grams of fat.
»Chili's Awesome Blossom with dipping sauce has 2,710 calories and 203 grams of fat? Skip the appetizers and order an Old Timer Burger on a whole wheat bun. It has 420 calories and 27 grams of fat.
»Carl's Jr.'s Six Dollar Burger has 1,000 calories and 62 grams of fat? Go for a plain hamburger, with 280 calories and 9 grams of fat.
Source: "The Stop & Go Fast Food Nutrition Guide" and "Eat This Not That"
A new review of six studies on the effects of food labeling found it "may" have a limited effect on consumer's restaurant choices. Taste, price and convenience are apparently more important.
A New York City study found Subway patrons who noticed calorie count information purchased 50 fewer calories. People who said the numbers affected their choice bought nearly 100 fewer calories.
Labeling "still requires people to have internal motivation to care," said Julie Metos, a dietician who oversees the nutrition master's degree program at the University of Utah. "Do consumers really know what calories, fat grams, what is it supposed to be? You have to have some baseline knowledge for it to be helpful."