When it comes to pointing fingers of blame for the obesity epidemic, fast-food restaurants get a lot of attention.
Yes, a triple bacon cheeseburger served with a large order of fries will pack on the pounds if that happens to be a staple of your diet. But researchers say fast-food restaurant meals really aren't any more fattening than those served at casual chain and independent restaurants.
Their study in the Journal of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found 92% of the 364 measured restaurant meals from both large-chain and independent restaurants had more calories than the recommended number for a single meal.
In 123 restaurants in three cities across America, there was at least one meal on the menu that, without beverages, appetizers, or desserts, exceeded the number of calories a person should consume in a single day.
Clueless about calories
While fast-food restaurants post on menus the number of calories each item has, most other restaurants don't. So consumers often are clueless to the number of calories they're swallowing.
Senior author Susan B. Roberts, of Tufts University, says consumers over-eat at restaurants because it tastes good and the portions are huge. She says it simply overwhelms most people's self-control.
“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,” Roberts said. “Favorite meals often contain three or even four times the amount of calories a person needs, and although in theory we don’t have to eat the whole lot in practice most of us don’t have enough willpower to stop eating when we have had enough.”
The researchers studied the meals served at restaurants in Boston, San Francisco, and Little Rock, Ark. The data was collected between 2011 and 2014 by comparing the meals against human calorie requirements and USDA food database values.
The study looked at all types of meals, not just burgers and fries. The fare included American, Chinese, Greek, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Thai, and Vietnamese.
The highest caloric content was found at American, Chinese, and Italian restaurants, where the mean calorie count per meal tipped the scales at 1,495 calories.
Part of the problem is portion size. With so many restaurants competing with one another, it has become an article of faith that serving sizes must be huge in order to fill tables.
“Standard meals are sized for the hungriest customers, so most people need superhuman self-control to avoid overeating,” said co-author William Masters.
Since women generally have a lower daily requirement than men, Masters says restaurant meals post a particular hazard for women trying to watch their weight.
What's the solution? The research team has concluded one answer is empowering customers to order partial portions at partial prices.
That, Masters says, would ultimately lead restaurants to adjust their normal serving size toward what the average customer wants, rather than the hungriest person.