Not So Bite-sized

Nutrition study finds small restaurant meals pack a big calorie punch

That burrito you had at lunch from the mom-and-pop taquería? It tasted mighty good, but the odds are that it had more calories than you needed—far more. And it turns out that dining at your neighborhood Indian or Chinese restaurant is probably much the same: tasty meals seriously laden with pack-on-the-pounds calories.

That’s the conclusion of a new Tufts study that found independent and small-chain restaurants ply us with more calories on average than their equivalents at national chains, and far more than we need. Why it’s important is clear: those eating establishments—some 50 percent of the total number of restaurants in the country—are not subject to new federal regulations that mandate that they post calorie content information. With restaurant meals providing about 35 percent of the daily caloric intake for the average American, that’s not good news for the nation’s battle of the bulge.

The researchers at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts University found that an average meal contained two to three times the estimated caloric needs of an adult for a single meal, and 66 percent of typical daily calorie requirements. The findings were published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

The researchers found that an average meal contained two to three times the estimated caloric needs of an adult for a single meal. Photo: © RiazanskaThe researchers found that an average meal contained two to three times the estimated caloric needs of an adult for a single meal. Photo: © Riazanska
The researchers analyzed 157 full meals, including side dishes, from 33 randomly selected independent or small-chain restaurants within 15 miles of downtown Boston; all the restaurants had an online menu, but did not provide nutritional information.

Researchers collected samples from the most popular food choices in the nine most common restaurant types: Mexican, American, Chinese, Italian, Japanese, Thai, Indian, Greek and Vietnamese. The study was conducted between June and August 2011. Specific dishes selected for the study were chosen based on customer rankings and from Internet searches for popular foods.

“On average, the meals studied contained 1,327 calories, which significantly exceeds the estimated energy needs of an individual adult at a single meal,” says senior author Susan B. Roberts, director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the HNRCA. “Meals from all restaurant types provided substantially more energy than is needed for weight maintenance.”

Nearly three-quarters of the meals analyzed contained more than half of the FDA’s daily energy recommendation of 2,000 calories, and 12 meals contained more than the entire recommended daily energy intake. Among the restaurants studied, the Italian (1,755 calories), American (1,494 calories) and Chinese (1,474 calories) meals contained the highest average calories. Vietnamese meals had the fewest calories, an average of 922. The Japanese meals had the second fewest, an average of 1,027.

The meals with free side dishes served at independent or small-chain restaurants had 1,437 calories on average, compared with an average of 1,359 calories as self-reported by larger national chain restaurants.

“These comparative findings suggest that both non-chain and chain restaurants contribute to the obesity epidemic, which is making people unhealthy and has a huge impact on health-care costs,” says Roberts, who is also a professor at the Friedman School and an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the School of Medicine.

“National recommendations for the prevention and treatment of obesity stress individual self-monitoring of food consumption, but there is little available information on the energy content of foods offered by restaurants that are not required to post nutrition information,” says Lorien Urban, N09, N11, a postdoctoral scholar in the Energy Metabolism Laboratory.

“Given that an imbalance between energy intake and energy expenditure of only 100 calories per day can lead to a weight gain of between six and 15 pounds per year, our findings suggest that routine reporting of meal calorie content by all restaurants, not just large chains, would encourage individuals to make informed choices about their diet and would discourage restaurants from offering unhealthy portions,” she says. 

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