Restaurant roulette: How many calories in chicken tikka masala or pad thai?

Chicken tikka masala

Calorie counts have otherwise been mandatory at chains in California, New York City, and some other jurisdictions for several years. So while the calories in a Starbucks scone, a McDonald’s burger, or a Subway sandwich might be less of a mystery than they used to be, most Americans haven’t a clue about the calories in entrées at Indian, Japanese, Thai, or other ethnic, non-chain restaurants.

Susan B. Roberts, director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University analyzed main dishes ranging from Moussaka to Vegetable Tempura to Chicken Pad Thai from independent and small-chain Boston restaurants. And her findings, first published in JAMA Internal Medicine, are featured in the centerfold article in the January/February issue of Nutrition Action. The average entrée (with sides like rice or bread) had roughly 1,300 calories.

At Greek restaurants, the researchers found that a Greek salad has 960 calories and Moussaka had 1,440 calories. At Indian restaurants, Lamb Vindaloo had 1,170 calories and Chicken Tikka Masala had 1,430 calories. At Vietnamese restaurants, Beef Pho had 940 calories and Lemongrass Chicken had 1,270 calories. At Thai restaurants, Drunken Noodles with Chicken had 1,120 calories and Chicken Pad Thai had 1,480 calories. At Italian restaurants, Fettuccine Alfredo, which in 1994 the Center for Science in the Public Interest famously called a “heart attack on a plate,” had 2,270 calories.

Subsequent research by Roberts and colleagues, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, included meals from Little Rock and San Francisco. That paper found that the meals’ calories “are far in excess of human energy requirements, and are similar to amounts provided by the fast-food and large-chain restaurants that have previously been associated with promoting obesity.”

Nutrition Action is published by CSPI.