Colorado-based Chipotle restaurant is a dining culture darling, thanks to the remarkable success story and saintly image as a purveyor of wholesome, sustainable ingredients and personalized burritos. With over 900 locations nationwide and growing, it’s clear that consumers buy into this image. But is it healthy?
Obviously, that depends on what you mean by “health”. Obsessed dieters equate health with calories. The lower the calories the healthier the food, regardless of what the actual food is made up of. By that definition, diet soda is healthy and olive oil isn’t. There are plenty of other possibilities for defining healthy food that have to do with actual nutritional properties, which impact the health of the eater.
- fat: both the amount and the type
- carbohydrate content, such as added sugars, refined vs. whole grains, etc.
- vitamins, minerals and antioxidants
- portion size (which is another way of saying calories)
- sodium and potassium
Consumer surveys show that people purchase food primarily because it tastes good. Price is another factor. Health and sustainability are way down on the list of purchasing decisions for most customers. But the illusion of health is a great marketing tool, and if people think “food with integrity” means it’s healthier, then they’ll feel better about eating those ginormous burritos.
How does a Chipotle burrito stack up against actual health parameters? Well, they certainly have protein, carbs, little sugar, fiber, vitamins, minerals and potassium. Sodium will depend somewhat on which ingredients you choose, as will the type and amount of fat. For example, cheese and sour cream add saturated fats; guacamole adds healthier fats.
Where Chipotle fails completely is portion size. If you want a burrito, you can choose a big burrito, or a big burrito. Put together a typical burrito with cheese, sour cream and guacamole and you’ve got over 1100 calories (40% fat), and that doesn’t even include the drink or chips. Want to eat less? You either have to split the burrito with another person who shares your likes and dislikes, or save the uneaten portion for later, or just throw it out. People who hate the idea of wasting all the resources that went into making those ingredients may valiantly chow down the whole thing, and end up eating too much food, unless they happen to be a teenaged boy or training for an Iron Man event.
Or you could construct a diet around eating just one Chipotle burrito a day. That could end up being a clever way to restrict calories and limit your options, which helps some people stick to a diet. It worked for Subway’s Jared.
So is Chipotle “healthy”? It depends on what you choose to put on your burrito and whether you need all those calories in one meal. The tortilla, beans, rice, meat, salsas and vegetables are fine. I’d leave off the sour cream and ask for guacamole. Maybe even leave off the cheese. And split it with someone else, so you don’t waste the food or eat too much.
You can check out Chipotle’s do-it-yourself nutrition information, and add up the ingredients for your own favorite burrito. Of course, an accurate total depends on the servers accurately portioning out each ingredient in the exact amounts listed on this spreadsheet.