And the Best Restaurant Choices Are?

by Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN on March 2, 2017 · 0 comments

A USDA survey showed that more than one-third of our daily calories come from food eaten away from home. Foods prepared outside the home have more calories, saturated fat and sodium than food prepared at home. If you decide to eat out where should you go – fast food chain, fast casual chain or a local restaurant in town? The answers may surprise you.

Fast casual restaurants have on average more than 750 calories per entrée, whereas fast food entrées average 560. Surprised? So were the researchers at the Arnold School of Public Health at University of South Carolina. What drives these findings? In a word – portions. At a fast food chain, burgers, sandwiches, fries and drinks are a certain portion size. You may be able to customize your order to a certain degree but a meal is pretty standard. Go to a fast casual restaurant and chips and salsa or a refillable bread basket are placed on the table. Drinks are refilled regularly, even if you do not request more, despite the fact that the original drink came in a quart-sized glass.

Next is the entrée, which is enormous. Though all chains will give you the option to take uneaten food home, few people do. Our human biology works against us when we see and smell tempting food. Our sympathetic nervous system revs up, insulin secretions drop blood sugar, and our stomachs relax. These physiological changes prepare us to eat all the food within reach. That was fine in the Stone Age when a large filling meal might be an infrequent happening, but eating out 3 or more times a week, it can be a recipe for weight gain.

Would you be better off eating in your local diner or family restaurant in town? Not according to researchers from Tufts University who looked at meals from non-chain (local) restaurants. American, Chinese and Italian restaurants had the highest calories count per meal, close to 1,500. These restaurants, because they are not chains, are exempt from providing nutrition and calorie information for their menu items. Approximately 50% of all restaurants in the US fall into this non-chain category.

Bottom line: Eating out can be a minefield, tread with caution.

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