Earlier this week, the New York Times published a data analysis of 3,000 meals ordered at Chipotle and determined that the average order contains 1,070 calories, 2,400 milligrams of sodium, and 75 percent of the daily recommended intake of saturated fat. Predictably, this data went viral. People love to read about Chipotle—a fact that Slate has taken advantage of as much as any other publication. People also love to wring their hands about their calorie intake. The Times feature hit the sweet spot of both of these obsessions.
But as the news spread around the Web, it began to get distorted. Lots of outlets claimed that the Times had proven not that Chipotle’s food is high in calories, but that Chipotle’s food is unhealthy. People, for instance, began its article about the Times data this way: “Some guacamole here, a little corn there, maybe some rice mixed in—your Chipotle lunch is looking pretty healthy, right? Wrong.” Jezebel ran a post about how very unsurprising the data was under the headline, “Chipotle Is Really Unhealthy … And?” Bustle, in a similarly snarky vein, wrote, “The New York Times wants us to know that Chipotle burritos are actually rather unhealthy.”
Let’s set aside the Times’ sodium and saturated fat calculations—after all, the conventional wisdom that they lead to poor health outcomes is very much in question. Most aggregators were focused on the calories, anyway, and many of them equated high in calories with bad for you. To be fair, the Times article encouraged this mindset; its authors claimed to want to answer the question, “How healthy is a normal Chipotle meal?” But their analysis did nothing of the sort: It just showed that the average Chipotle meal is high in calories, which is not the same thing as showing that the average Chipotle meal is unhealthy.
It’s obvious to the point of sounding stupid: Any food is high in calories if you eat enough of it. And you can’t accuse Chipotle of hiding its calories with deceptively small portion sizes—its burritos are, as Bustle put it, “the size of your head.” That’s because Chipotle burritos are made from relatively unprocessed ingredients that provide bulk as well as calories.
In fact, most of the sources of calories at Chipotle have a lot to recommend them, nutritionally. Almost every order includes beans and vegetables, which most Americans don’t get enough of. You’re likely to get a fair amount of fiber and protein in any given order, both of which contribute to satiety and make it unlikely that you’ll be hungry for dessert afterwards. Even guacamole, which is obviously high in calories, is an excellent source of “good” fat, fiber, and vitamins. Granted, the burrito tortillas are empty calories, full of fat and simple carbohydrates, but the corn tortillas for tacos are made from whole grains and are correspondingly high in fiber. (Even the tortilla chips are high in fiber!)
In fact, if you plug one of the Times’ sample average orders—a barbacoa burrito with rice, pinto beans, fajita vegetables, roasted chili corn salsa, cheese, sour cream, and lettuce—into Chipotle’s nutritional calculator, you’ll find that it contains 20 grams of fiber, 53 grams of protein, and more than 50 percent of the recommended daily values for vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. When you look at it that way, the burrito’s 1085 calories don’t seem so bad.
Maybe I sound like a shill for Chipotle right now—so be it. (For the record, I prefer the burritos from Dos Toros, a New York City mini-chain.) It just pains me that so many people have been brainwashed into thinking that shouldn’t eat something just because it’s high in calories. Modern nutritional science is founded on the idea that there are lots of vectors on which a food’s healthfulness can be measured: calories, fat, fiber, sugar, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, etc. And these days, most nutritionists recommend eating a variety of whole, unprocessed or minimally processed foods—like, for instance, just about every ingredient you can get at Chipotle.
Of course it’s not good for you to eat too many calories, but calories aren’t the be-all and end-all of nutrition. And you’re way better off consuming 1,100 nutrient-packed calories at Chipotle than consuming 1,100 empty calories at McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, or any other fast-food chain that specializes in processing ingredients until they’re barely recognizable as food.