haloWhen eating out, buying a sandwich seems like a no-brainer when faced with few healthy choices. When you compare its nutritional content with other “traditional” fast food fare (like a hamburger, for example), ordering a submarine sandwich really makes sense.  Or does it?

Exhibit A:

Subway Tuna sandwich (6”) contains 480 calories, 25 grams of fat & 580 mg of sodium

tuna sub

Exhibit B:

McDonald’s Big Mac hamburger reigns in at 540 calories, 29 grams of fat & 1020 mg of sodium

bigmac Let me break it down for you:

There’s not much difference between the two menu options (except maybe sodium).  However, we perceive the tuna sub to be healthier. Perceive is the key word here. A number of factors come into play to form that perception, including advertising, marketing, healthy options associated with the menu item (i.e. vegetable toppings) among others. Check out our take on health halos in our Power Foods post (read: chocolate covered acai berries!).

In fact, the health halo perception we have about a certain food or menu item will affect how we order since the “halo” causes us to underestimate the caloric content. How do we know this? There’s actually a scientific study that looked into this very issue.

The researchers compared their participants’ answers to a questionnaire either eating a Subway sub versus a McDonald’s Big Mac. In the majority of cases, participants perceived the Italian BLT sub sandwich to be a healthier choice compared with the Big Mac. What may come as a surprise is that the footlong Italian BLT sub (used in this study) was significantly higher in calories (900 calories) to the Big Mac (540 calories). Further to this, when participants ordered the Subway sub, they were more likely to order higher calorie drinks or side dishes (chips, cookies) compared with the McDonalds eaters.

Some of my heart patients tell me that they’ll often use online nutritional information sheets or smartphone apps to help them pick better options out there. It’ll never be perfect (compared to making it yourself), but at least you’ll have an idea of what you’re getting yourself into nutrient-wise.

Bottom Line:

It’s not always about aiming for the lowest calorie count. We want to emphasize lower saturated fat, sodium and finding ways to bump up the fibre & vegetable content (notoriously low in take-away fare). Watch the extras (sauces, chips, etc.) – they can add up quickly. If you’re hankering for a burger, don’t let us stop you – it’s all about moderation after all. If you’re a regular reader to our blog, you’ll know that moderation is our mantra – enjoy a variety of foods, making the majority of them healthy, whole foods with space for fun, less healthy treats. Now about that burger…

-Samantha