We know that eating out can be unhealthy, but just how unhealthy? Well, some 96% of entrees sold at chain restaurants—from buffets and fast food to the more upscale or “family style” places—exceeded USDA recommendations for either calories, sodium, fat or saturated fat. And fast food restaurants tended to be more nutritious than “family-style” restaurants, like Pizza Hut or Red Lobster. Entrees at family restaurants had an average of 271 more calories, 435 more mg sodium and 16 more grams of fat than fast-food entrees.
The study, published online in the journal Public Health Nutrition, analyzed the nutritional content of nearly 31,000 menu items from 245 American restaurants. These restaurants included fast-food, takeout, buffet, family style and upscale restaurants, according to study co-author Helen Wu.
The USDA recommends about 667 calories 767 mg sodium, 35% calories from fat and 10% calories from saturated fat per meal. The limit reflects about one-third of your recommended daily intake (if you’re a snacker, your per “meal” calorie, fat and sodium limit should obviously be even lower). While the majority of entrees did fall within calorie guidelines, only 3% – 4% also had an acceptable level of fat, saturated fat or sodium.
“Many items may appear healthy based on calories, but actually can be very unhealthy when you consider other important nutrition criteria,” Wu said.
Sodium was the biggest culprit. Or perhaps portion size: For some places, an “entree” meant a single slice of pizza or piece of fried chicken; multiply that times however much an actual person actually eats, and you’re looking at a lot more calories and a ton more sodium. And menu-item calorie counts often fail to include things like salad dressing, bread or crackers, butter, added salt, etc.
The Food and Drug Administration is supposedly soon to publish final regulations that require chains with 20 or more locations to put calorie counts on menus and provide additional nutrition information on request.
The regulations might encourage restaurants to come up with healthier choices, especially when it comes to sodium, said Wu, adding that a slow decrease over time might not be noticed by customers. “Once upon a time people were perfectly happy eating foods that were lower in sodium, and we need to get back to that.”
Other findings from the study include:
• If you’re tempted to order “just an appetizer” to cut back on portions or calories … don’t. Appetizers clocked in at an average of 813 calories, compared to 674 per serving for main entrees.
• Restaurants that made nutrition information easily accessible on websites had significantly less calories, fat and sodium contents across menu offerings than those that only provide information upon request.
• 82% of U.S. adults eat out at least once a week.