Chipotle made headlines earlier this week when the fast food giant became the first major restaurant chain to remove all genetically modified organism (GMO) ingredients from its foods. Now Chipotle is back in the news for a very different reason.
When asked how his restaurant chain reconciles its healthful mission with high calorie counts, Chipotle founder Steve Ells told CNNMoney, “There’s really nothing that we can do to prevent people from eating a certain quantity of food.”
Chipotle informs customers about calorie counts on menu items, but they can can range from 400 to 1,000 calories per item based on the ingredients requested. To that point, Ells likened the chain to a farmer’s market.
“You could go to the grocery store in the middle aisles and pick up all the packaged food, and they have calorie counts on them. Or, you could go to the famers market, and there are no labels to tell you about the calories of anything there — which might make for the better diet,” he said.
Registered dietitian Sonya Angelone, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says technically it’s true that Chipotle can’t prevent their customers from overeating. “They can’t be in the dining room, pulling people’s plates away,” she tells Yahoo Health. “But people eat what’s in front of them, and there’s a lot of food in front of them when they go to Chipotle.”
Angelone points out that people tend to be hungry when they visit fast food chains like Chipotle and are more likely to ask for extras like guacamole and cheese that they might not otherwise want. Having those extras right in front of them when they order also makes it more tempting. That tacks on extra calories and adds to the cost of the meal. “It’s strategically done,” she says.
Certified dietitian-nutritionist Jessica Cording, RD, agrees but says the problem is bigger than Chipotle. “People’s perception of what a normal serving size looks like is blown way out of proportion, thanks to these restaurants that serve such oversized portions,” she tells Yahoo Health. Chipotle and other restaurants like it are in a bit of a bind, she says: If they suddenly serve less, customers might go elsewhere to fulfill their supersize cravings.
Related: How to Eat Healthy at Chipotle
However, she says there are a few things Chipotle could do differently. They could map out combinations in advance for customers that say exactly how many calories an item would have if you got extras like grilled vegetables, cheese, and beans, and offer up the most healthy combination per dish.
She says Chipotle could also tweak their serving bowls to make it look like people are getting more food than they actually are, since “a lot of our hunger is due to visual cues.”
Half-portion options like a half of a burrito or taco salad would be another good nutritional option, says Angelone, adding, “It’s kind of a cop out to say they can’t do anything about it.”
Since Chipotle doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to change, Cording suggests fans of the chain map out what they want in advance online using the restaurant’s online calorie counter so they have a more accurate idea of what they’re eating. While it’s an extra step, she says it’s worth it: “If you get used to overeating, you always want to overeat on both a physical and mental level.”