Dining out is one of life’s simple joys, and Americans spend a lot of money on restaurant meals. In fact, a 2015 Bloomberg report marked the first time Americans spent more at restaurants and bars than they did at the grocery store. But that trend isn’t helping the nation’s obesity epidemic. While fast food has long been accused of being too high in calories and fat, a new study shows that all kinds of restaurant meals, even those served at local, non-chain restaurants, exceed calorie limits.
The study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, found that 92 percent of meals they looked at from chain and local restaurants contained more calories than is recommended for a meal. In 123 of the 364 meals studied, the dish had more calories than a person needs in a day. For the study’s purposes, a “meal” was the entree dish alone, not counting drinks, appetizers, or desserts.
Tips for Eating Out While Dieting
You can enjoy eating out and stick to your dietary goals by following this advice for being healthy while dining out.
Choose the restaurant carefully. All dining establishments are not created equal. While there’s always a healthy choice you can make, some restaurants certainly make it easier than others. The New York Times recommends Mediterranean food or health-centric chains such as Chop’t, Lyfe Kitchen, Sweetgreen, Modmarket, and Native Foods Cafe. Local restaurants, deli counters, and natural food stores can also be good bets for healthier options.
Plan ahead. If you know you’re attending a decadent dinner, maybe cut back on calories a bit at lunch. You can also do your homework by pulling up the restaurant’s menu and nutrition information online. This allows you to scout out a few options that are right for you. Then, once you get there, you can relax and take part in conversation instead of stressing over what to order.
Keep an eye on portion sizes. Yes, you can always take home a doggie bag, but realistically, science shows that people tend to clean their plates. There are several ways to get around this. You can split an entree with a tablemate to make the portion size more realistic. Wait staff should be happy to pack half your food away for you before bringing it to the table. Another option—don’t order an entree. Stick with a light appetizer or two, soup and side salad, or another combination of dishes meant to accompany the main event.
Make the menu work for you. If the work group wants to go out for pizza, choose thin crust, load up on veggie toppings, and take the bulk of your order home to share with family or split into several servings. Be wary of fatty sauces, carb-heavy main dishes, and sweet beverages. Load up on whole grains, colorful fruit and veggies, and lean meats. Switch a starchy, fried side for a fresh salad, fruit bowl, or vegetable dish.
“Although fast-food restaurants are often the easiest targets for criticism because they provide information on their portion sizes and calories, small restaurants typically provide just as many calories, and sometimes more,” says senior author Susan B. Roberts, PhD, Director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston. “Favorite meals often contain three or even four times the amount of calories a person needs.”
American, Chinese, Greek, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Thai, and Vietnamese cuisines were all included by researchers in the study. Of all of the cuisines studied, American, Chinese, and Italian consistently had the highest calorie counts with an average of 1,495 calories per meal.
While no one forces us to eat all of the food we’re served, “most of us don’t have enough willpower to stop eating when we have had enough. These findings make it clear that making healthy choices while eating out is difficult because the combination of tempting options and excessive portions often overwhelm our self-control,” says senior author Roberts. Restaurants would do their customers a service by offering partial portions at a lower price than a full meal, the authors noted.
“Oversize servings lead a lot of dieters to avoid most restaurants entirely, or stick to items like salads that they know are served in reasonable portions,” says William Masters, PhD, a co-author of the study and professor of food economics at the Friedman School. “Standard meals are sized for the hungriest customers, so most people need superhuman self-control to avoid overeating. There is a gender dimension here that is really important: women typically have a lower caloric requirement than men, so on average need to eat less. Women, while dining out, typically have to be more vigilant.”