Did you know that the average restaurant meal provides most of the calories, fat and salt you need for an entire day? Two recent studies published in May 2013 in JAMA Internal Medicine explore the correlation between these excesses and the obesity epidemic in North America.
The first study, led by Susan Roberts, director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., involved analyzing 157 meals from 33 restaurants in Boston. The team found that 73 percent of restaurant meals contained more than 1,000 calories, half of the 2,000 daily recommended amount for adults. This refers to just the meal; no appetizers, no drinks and no desserts. Twelve meals contained more than an entire day’s worth of recommended calories.
Large Portions Lead To Excessive Calories
The key to such surplus calories was portion size, the study found. Considering prior research that shows people tend to eat the amount placed in front of them, it’s not a stretch to conclude that restaurants that provide excessive portions are directly contributing to the obesity epidemic.
Roberts was able to categorize which types of restaurants serve up the highest number of calories. The average number of calories per meal was highest in Italian (1,755 calories), American (1,494 calories) and Chinese (1,474 calories) restaurants. Meals from Japanese (1,027 calories) and Vietnamese (922 calories) restaurants ranked lowest on the list.
The study also made it clear that local diners and family-run restaurants were just as likely to serve up calorie-laden meals. In fact, if anything, the study found that small-chain restaurants actually serve meals with slightly higher calorie counts (an average of 1,437 calories per meal compared to 1,359 calories from national chains).
Meals Average 151% of Salt Needed Per Day
The second study, led by graduate student Mary Scourboutakos of the University of Toronto, involved analyzing 685 meals and 156 desserts from sit-down restaurant chains. The researchers uncovered that the average meal – whether dining out for breakfast, lunch or dinner – contained 1,128 calories, just over half the daily recommended amount for adults.
In addition to tracking calories, Scourboutakos and her team also analyzed salt and fat content. The meals in the study averaged 151 percent of the salt needed in one day, 89 percent of the daily recommendation for fat, 83 percent of recommended saturated and trans fat amounts, and 60 percent of the daily recommended cholesterol intake.
Salt, fat and cholesterol hide in the most unusual places. Even if you choose a chicken salad from a chain restaurant, like one New York University Medical Center patient did, believing it to be a healthy choice, it could easily have 2,000 mg of sodium and over 40 g of fat.
What To Do?
The best way to handle eating out is to choose restaurants that list calorie and other nutrition information on the menu. Some restaurants have this information available upon request. You can also make it a habit to eat precisely half of your meal and take the other half home to enjoy later. Spread out your calories and get a bigger bang for your buck by developing this habit.