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Americans have no idea how many calories are in a taco salad

The sign on a Taco Bell franchise.
Reuters/Fred Prouser
Not a salad shop.
  • Dan Kopf
By Dan Kopf

Data editor

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Americans are actually pretty good at counting calories. According to a new survey from Morning Consult, people tend to be, on average, just 110 calories off when estimating calories for items at popular restaurants.

But for certain dishes, Americans have serious blind spots. People are way off when it comes to predicting the calories in Chinese egg rolls, for example, or taco salad. In both cases, survey respondents guessed there were half as many calories in those dishes as there actually are. Blended alcoholic drinks were also problematic: Pina coladas and daiquiris have more than twice as many calories as the typical American thinks. (I believe this is willful ignorance.)

The estimates are based on surveys of about 2,200 adults. The calories data is from the US Department of Agriculture, and based on the number of calories in that dish at the typical restaurant.

Americans underestimate the number of calories in these dishes

ItemActualAverage GuessAverage underestimate
Chinese egg rolls, 4 pieces888426462
Taco salad with beef906446460
Daiquiri, 12 oz.674284390
Pina Colada, 12 oz.656297359
Cheese quesadilla, 10″714436278
Chicken parmesan without pasta614426188
Spaghetti with meat sauce670487183
Three pancakes525373152
Club sandwich with grilled chicken, bacon, cheese and mayonnaise590487103
Large onion rings48142754

On the flip side, Americans typically overestimate the number of calories in ice cream sundaes and double-decker cheeseburgers, perhaps because they’ve been taught to think of these as indulgences.

Americans overestimate the number of calories in these dishes

ItemActualAverage GuessAverage underestimate
Sundae with hot fudge284532-248
Double decker cheeseburger572755-183
Breakfast burrito with egg, cheese and sausage302423-121
Soft shell beef taco with cheese210312-102
Chocolate milkshake, 10.6 oz357449-92
Chicken tenders, four strips324406-82
Fried mozzarella sticks, three pieces303378-75
Coffee, 8 oz.270-68
Vanilla soft-serve with cone196257-61
Fried chicken drumstic200259-59

A rule recently went into effect requiring US chain restaurants to list the number of calories in each of their items. That should help Americans confront the true decadence of egg rolls and taco salad going forward.

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