The Dangers of Dining Out

Large-chain, local restaurants often serve over-sized, high-calorie portions

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Jennifer Gershman, PharmD, CPh

(RxWiki News) Most people know that eating fast food is a quick way to gain weight. But they may not realize that sit-down restaurants can be just as unhealthy.

In a new study, researchers from Tufts University found that 92 percent of the 364 meals studied from both chain-operated and local restaurants exceeded calorie recommendations for a single meal. In 123 of those restaurants, even single meals without a beverage or dessert sometimes exceeded the recommended daily calories for an entire day.

"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," said lead study author Susan B. Roberts, PhD, in a press release.

Dr. Roberts, director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at Tufts, added, "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."

To reach this conclusion, Dr. Roberts and team looked at favorite meals from both local and chain restaurants in San Francisco, Little Rock and Boston between 2011 and 2014. These meals were then compared to daily calorie requirements and US Department of Agriculture (USDA) food database values.

American, Chinese, Greek, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Thai and Vietnamese cuisines were analyzed. Some of the highest calorie counts were found in American, Chinese and Italian cuisine, with an average of 1,495 calories per meal.

Within a balanced diet, a man needs around 2,500 calories a day to maintain his weight. For a woman, that figure is around 2,000 calories a day.

"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," said study co-author William Masters, PhD, in a press release.

Dr. Masters noted that a standard restaurant meal is typically sized for the hungriest customer, and most people need extreme self control to avoid overeating. Women may need to be even more vigilant, as they require fewer calories on average than men.

To lessen the negative effects of meals eaten out, the study authors suggest policies that require restaurants to offer smaller portions at a reduced price. Although most people blame a lack of willpower for an inability to leave food on their plates, Dr. Roberts said that finishing food is a physiological mechanism.

Referencing Pavlov, he explained that, when food is available, humans enter into the cephalic phase of digestion. In this phase, the sight and smell of food revs up the nervous system and relaxes the stomach.

"So we order our favorite dishes because that is what tempts us, and then we eat more than we need because the portion is too large," Dr. Roberts said.

This study expanded on a previous one conducted by Dr. Roberts and team, in which it was suggested that both fast food and sit-down restaurants are not always honest with their descriptions of meals or the calories they contain.

This study was published Jan. 20 in Journal of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The Arkansas Children’s Hospital Research Institute and the National Institutes of Health funded this research. No conflicts of interest were disclosed.

Review Date: 
January 18, 2016
Last Updated:
January 20, 2016