Healthier Items Missing from Chain Restaurant Menus

Full service chain restaurants offer items that exceed daily nutrient content for adults

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) With busy lives and work schedules, grabbing a bite to eat from a restaurant can be a convenient choice, but it may not always be a healthy one.

A recent study found that adult restaurant meals that included an entree, a side dish and one half of an appetizer had close to 1,500 calories and over 3,000 milligrams of sodium.

The study's authors noted that foods offered in full-service restaurants are typically high in saturated fat, sodium and calories, and customers should be aware of this.

"Check for nutritional information online before going to a restaurant."

This study was led by Amy Auchincloss, PhD, MPH, in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics in the School of Public Health at Drexel University in Philadelphia. The research team examined the nutritional value of meals at full-service national restaurant chains with locations in Philadelphia.

Dr. Auchincloss and colleagues analyzed data from 21 chain restaurants in the Philadelphia area between March to May of 2011 that included calorie and sodium information for their menu items on their website or on their printed menus.

The researchers recorded information on calories, sodium, saturated fat, total fat and fiber. This information was noted for appetizers, single serving entrees, side dish, desserts, nonalcoholic drinks, alcoholic drinks and dessert-like drinks (e.g., milkshakes).

Healthier items were determined using the dietary reference values provided in the US Dietary guidelines for children and adults. Under these guidelines, children should receive 1,400 calories per day and adults should receive 2,000 calories per day.

A total of 2,615 menu items were included in their final review. The average calorie count for appetizers and single-serving entrees was about 800 calories for both. The researchers determined that in about half of the appetizers and single-serving entrees studied, the criteria was not met for them to be considered healthy.

About 30 percent of the single-serving entrees exceeded the daily recommended value for saturated fat and sodium intake. The minimum fiber recommended amount was only met for about 20 percent of appetizers and single-serving entrees.

Meals that included a single-serving entree, a side dish and half of an appetizer had about 1,500 calories, 28 grams of saturated fat, 3,312 milligrams of sodium and 11 grams of fiber.

If a nonalcoholic beverage and half of a dessert were added, the calorie count increased to 2,020 calories, saturated fat increased to 39 grams, sodium increased to 3,760 milligrams and fiber increased to 12 grams.

The researchers found that while single-serving entrees targeted at seniors (55 and older) did have lower calorie counts, these items still exceeded the daily recommended value for saturated fat and sodium content.

Single-serving entrees for children had an average calorie count of 464 calories, but 31 percent of these items exceeded the daily recommended amount of calories for children, and 70 percent exceeded the daily recommended value for sodium.

In an interview with the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, Dr. Auchincloss noted that the most surprising finding from the study was probably the calorie content of appetizers. “The lesson there is be careful about even bothering to order an appetizer [because] you’re going to get most of your full day’s worth of calories even if you order just an entree and a side dish,” she said.

The study's authors concluded that customers need to be informed about the nutritional value of the food they eat at restaurants, and health educators can assist with this by discussing the daily recommended values for calories, sodium and fat.

"While they may offer fish, chicken and vegetables, most chain restaurants lack the healthier items commonly found in many independent restaurants," said Dr. Mark Mincolla, legendary health care practitioner and author of "WHOLE HEALTH: A Holistic Approach to Healing for the 21st Century" and dailyRx Contributing Expert.

"For example, in chains you will be hard pressed to find free range beef and poultry, wild fish, fresh fruits, dark leaf salads, whole grain breads and pastas, brown and wild rice and herbal teas," he said.

This study was published on January 8 in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

The study's authors reported no potential competing interests.

Review Date: 
January 9, 2014
Last Updated:
January 14, 2014