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Large portion sizes at restaurants found to be a global problem

The issue affects both fast food and full service restaurants

Photo (c) tifonimages - Getty Images
One of the keys to maintaining a healthy weight is portion control. Scaling back on how much of certain foods we’re eating can be incredibly beneficial -- especially as consumers look to avoid adding weight over the holiday season.

However, according to a new study conducted by researchers from Tufts University, restaurants -- both fast food and full service -- may be the biggest offenders of violating healthy portion sizes around the world. The researchers found that restaurants are serving dishes well past the recommended calorie intake for one meal.

“Fast food has been widely cited as an easy target for diet change because of its high calorie content; however, previous work by our team in the U.S. identified restaurant meals in general as an important target for interventions to address obesity,” said researcher Dr. Susan B. Roberts.

“Eating out is now common around the world, but it is important to keep in mind that it is easy to overeat when a large restaurant meal is likely to be only one of several meals and snacks consumed that day.”

Adding up the calories

To see the effect of portion size on a global scale, the researchers narrowed their study down to five countries: India, Ghana, Brazil, Finland, and China.

Over 100 restaurants were chosen at random in the five countries, and the researchers looked at the calorie information of the dishes that restaurant-goers ordered most often and compared the results with the United States.

Though many consumers often place blame on fast food establishments, dishes at full-service restaurants were actually found to be higher in calories. The average plate at a full-service menu racked up over 1,300 calories, while fast food meals typically ran just over 800 calories.

However, portion size was an issue at all restaurants involved in the study. Over 70 percent of all fast food meals and nearly 95 percent of all full service meals had over 600 calories, while three percent of the restaurants involved in the study had meals that were over 2,000 calories.

“Current average portion sizes are high in relation to calorie requirements and recommendations globally,” Dr. Roberts said. “As three meals and one or more snacks in between is common, including in the countries we studied, large restaurant portions should be examined further for their potential role in the global obesity epidemic.”

Controlling portions

Several recent reports have found that portion control really is key to a healthy diet, and experts are encouraging the food industry to start putting less on consumers’ plates. A recent study found that cutting down on portion sizes was an effective way for consumers to make healthier choices in the future.

“The present findings indicate that if portion sizes of commercially available foods were reduced, these smaller, more appropriate portion sizes may recalibrate perceptions of what constitutes a ‘normal’ amount of food to eat and, in doing so, decrease how much consumers choose to eat,” said Dr. Eric Robinson.

Earlier this year, chain restaurants with more than 20 stores were required to post their calorie information on menus and menu boards. The initiative was part of the Affordable Care Act, and the goal was to reduce obesity and encourage consumers to make healthier choices when ordering out.

A study from later in the year found that relocating calorie information on the menu could have the greatest effect on consumers’ ordering habits. When the calories were displayed prominently on the menu, making it the first thing consumers’ saw, they were more likely to order something with fewer calories.

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