Is Restaurant Food Bad for You?

Health Writer

It’s pretty obvious that fast food is typically less healthy than most home-cooked meals.  You may, however, assume that if you go to a “nice” restaurant, the menu options will be healthier.  According to a new investigation, researchers found that most restaurants still offer higher-than-acceptable levels of salt, sugar, and calories, and often times portions are way too big.  The lead researcher, Ruopeng An, a professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, found that, in general, we need public health interventions at most away-from-home dining establishments.

It’s really hard for the average consumer to scientifically evaluate the food served by most establishments.  Rarely is the full nutrition breakdown and full ingredient list, cooking methods, or other pertinent dietary information available.  Professor An used data from NHANES, reviewing over 18,000 surveys from adults who described what they’d eaten during a two-day period.  About one-third of the adults said they’d had fast food on one or both days.  One quarter of the surveys showed that individuals had eaten at least one meal at a full-service restaurant.

Compared to those surveyed who ate at home, those who ate fast food consumed, on average, 190 more calories, 11 grams more fat, 3.5 grams of more saturated fat, 10 mg more cholesterol and over 300 mg more sodium.  When those who ate at full-service restaurants were compared to in-home diners, they ate about 187 more calories, 10 more grams of fat, 2.5 more grams of saturated fat, 60 mg more of cholesterol, and 400 mg more of sodium.  Those categorized as obese were more likely to consume additional calories and larger portions at full service restaurants, compared to normal weight or overweight people.

Interestingly, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that restaurants with 20 or more locations post nutrition information, which means that smaller chain restaurants or individual establishments don’t have to.  The researchers also found that if fast food was taken home to eat, similar calories (compared to eating it at the fast food store) were consumed, but consumers tended to eat a bit less of restaurant food when it was consumed at home.

As a nutritionist, I’m not really surprised by the data and the researchers' findings. If you cook at home you are more likely to create more reasonably sized portions so you have healthier calorie counts, and you have full control of the ingredients you cook with.  Eating out is often associated with a feeling that you can splurge or break your diet.  The problem is that most of us are doing it way too often.  If you do choose to eat out, here are some ways you can manage calories, limit salt, added sugar and fat, and bump up the nutrient density:

  • Ask how the food is cooked and choose broiled, grilled, pan seared or steamed
  • Choose a large salad with dressing on the side to start
  • Ask for extra vegetables and skip the grain side dish
  • Ask for sauces on the side
  • Ask for added vegetables to pizza, omelets or pasta dishes
  • Let them know not to bring the bread basket to the table
  • Immediately drink a glass of water when you sit down
  • Purchase individual glasses of wine, not a bottle to be shared
  • Share an entrée or have an appetizer as the entrée
  • Consider fast food a “sometimes treat”
  • Don’t be afraid to specify cooking methods or other specific requests to the waitress
  • View the menu online if possible, ahead of time, so you can assess your choices

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