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For healthy eating dine in not out

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
healthy diet, restaurant food, saturated fat, trans fat, calories

What’s on the menu at your local restaurant? According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), 96% of entrees sold at large US food chains exceed recommended daily limits for calories, sodium, fat and saturated fat. The USDA requested that the Rand Corporation conduct a study of restaurant food; the agency published the results of the 18 month study online on May 15.

The goals of the study were: (1) Describe the availability of nutrition information in major chain restaurants; (2) Document the energy and nutrient levels of menu items; (3): Evaluate relationships with restaurant characteristics, menu labeling and trans fat laws, and nutrition information accessibility; and (4) Compare energy and nutrient levels against industry-sponsored and government-issued nutrition criteria. The investigators conducted an analysis of the energy, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, carbohydrate, and protein levels of 28,433 regular and 1,833 children's menu items. The study authors derived their information from energy and nutrition information provided on restaurant websites or upon request; they also reviewed material from secondary databases on restaurant characteristics. Included in the study were the top 400 US chain restaurants by sales, based on the 2009 list of the Restaurants & Institutions magazine.

The authors note that data was collected from February through May 2010. The data collection time frame overlaps with when the menu labeling provision of the Affordable Care Act, which was signed into law in March 2010); however, federal implementation rules were still pending in early 2012.

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The researchers were able to obtain complete nutrition information from 245 (61 %) of the restaurants. They found:

  • Appetizers contained more energy, fat, and sodium than all other item types.
  • Children's menu specialty beverages had more fat, saturated fat and carbohydrates than comparable regular menu beverages.
  • The majority of main entrées fell below one-third of the USDA’s estimated daily energy needs; however, only 3 % were also within limits for sodium, fat, and saturated fat.
  • Main entrées had significantly more energy, fat, and saturated fat in family-style restaurants than in fast-food restaurants.
  • Restaurants that made nutrition information easily accessible on Websites had significantly lower energy, fat, and sodium contents across menu offerings than those providing information only upon request.

The following USDA recommended limits were used to measure against main entrees.
No more than:

  • 667 calories
  • 35% of calories from fat
  • 10% of calories from saturated fat
  • 767 mg sodium

The authors noted that their research provides a comprehensive view of chain restaurant menu nutrition prior to nationwide labeling laws. In addition, it offers baseline data to evaluate how restaurants respond after laws are implemented.

Take home message:
The new labeling laws should make it easier to determine restaurant food quality; however, many restaurants, such as the ones reviewed in the study, have unhealthy items on their menus. It is safer—and less expensive—to prepare a healthy meal at home. If you dine out, research the menu or patronize a restaurant that you are assured contains healthy items on its menu. In these tough economic times, Americans still enjoy the treat of dining out; however, the trend is to seek out a less expensive restaurant than they would have selected when the economy was better. According to the report, many reasonably-priced food chains might not be the best nutritional choice.

Reference: USDA