That too much fondness of fast food can cause weight problems is old news. But the idea that nearly all types of restaurants dish up meals that can expand your waistline has not been as widely discussed -- until now.
Two separate studies, one from the University of Toronto, Canada, the other from Tufts University, Boston, Massachusetts, found that most restaurant food is not all that superior to hamburgers and fries when it comes to calorie and fat content.
The researchers who conducted the Toronto study discovered that the average meal in 19 different restaurant chains contained 1,128 calories, or about 56 per cent of the recommended daily intake of 2,000 calories for adults. Some popular fast food items have considerably less than that. And excessive amounts of calories are not only found in dinner entrées but in lunch and breakfast servings as well.
Besides calories, the authors of the study report also expressed concern over high salt, fat and cholesterol content, sometimes exceeding between 60 and 150 per cent of the recommended limits.
For the Tuftsstudy, the researchers focused on calories in meals purchased at independent and small chain restaurants, which are exempt from having to post nutritional information on their menus, as it is required of larger chains. The results showed even higher counts than what their bigger competitors offered -- a whopping 1,327 calories on average.
More than 90 per cent of the small chain eateries included in the study served portion sizes that covered at least one third of a day's worth of calories. Ten per cent went beyond that, and a few even exceeded the recommended calorie count of an entire day -- on just one plate. (Perhaps Adam Richman of Man v. Food should pay them a visit.)
"Considering that more than half the restaurants in the U.S. are independent or small chain and won't be covered by labeling requirements in the future, this is something consumers need to pay attention to," said Dr. Lorien Urban, one of the researchers who was involved in the Tufts study.
But even calorie postings on menus and billboards where they are required by law have been proven to be unreliable in prior investigations by Tufts and others. In fact, fast food places with their largely automated apportioning methods can find it easier to determine accurate measurements than restaurants that rely on estimates by kitchen personnel. There is only so much accuracy you can expect when dishes are individually crafted by hand, said one executive of Olive Garden, a nationally operating restaurant chain.
Still, restaurant patrons don't have to feel completely helpless if they want to exercise some measure of control over their calorie intake. Dr. Lisa Young, professor for nutrition at New York University (NYU) and author of the blog "The Portion Teller", recommends following an easily applicable restaurant survival guide she has compiled for her readers.
Being aware that portion sizes in most restaurants have exponentially grown over the past few decades is an important start, she says. It may look like you're getting more value for your money, but the fact is that you will likely overindulge when you're faced with an overflowing plate. Instead, she advises to order only half portions whenever available, or just an appetizer. Or you can split one entrée with a dinner partner.
Choose a salad or soup if they offer healthier alternatives to, let's say, meat dishes. But be careful with dressings and creams -- that's where extra, unnecessary calories come in.
Don't forget that your drinks have calories, too, sometimes lots of them. Sodas are notorious for high sugar content, and so are fruit juices and milk shakes. Alcoholic beverages count as well. The more you have of these, the more likely you'll lose your inhibitions and end up overeating, she warns.
Desserts, of course, are always hard to say "no" to, but you are not without choices. A few pieces of fresh fruit can be refreshing and they come without much regret.
What matters most -- especially if you eat out often -- is to keep track of your consumption, just like you would on any weight management program, if necessary with the help of a food diary. With the necessary precautions, you should still be able to enjoy a nice meal that someone else prepared for you.
Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.