The dietary guidelines set forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. aren’t exactly a beacon of perfect nutrition; many criticize the balance of nutrients and believe that it favors an overly amount of dairy, meat, and carbs. So the fact that 96% of chain restaurants fail to meet their criteria for a healthy meal according to a new study is particularly disheartening; and a pretty good reason to figure out how to cook a few healthy meals at home.
Researchers examined 30,923 menu items from 245 brands of chain restaurants (including fast-food, buffet, takeout, family style and upscale restaurants), using nutrition facts posted online. They found that only 4% contained the recommended combination of calories, sodium, fat and saturated fat set by the USDA. Most of them kept their calorie count below 667 (one-third of the recommended 2,000 calories per day for the average adult), but based on other nutritional markers, they didn’t look so good.
Helen Wu, study author and assistant policy analyst at the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, explained:
Many items may appear healthy based on calories, but actually can be very unhealthy when you consider other important nutrition criteria.
Some of their findings–like the fact that restaurants frequently exceeded recommended sodium levels, and that serving sizes listed were often much smaller than what people actually eat–were fairly obvious. And while we wouldn’t expect most chain restaurants to offer particularly healthy options, we were kind of surprised by the following findings:
- Family-style restaurants (like Denny’s and Red Lobster) were worse than fast food restaurants: On average, their entrees contained 271 more calories, 16 more grams of fat and 435 mg more sodium.
- Appetizers were the worst offenders: Per serving, they had more calories, fat, saturated fat, and sodium than all other menu items; on average, they clocked in around 813 calories.