As a nation, we love restaurant dining. We’re dining out more often at everything from fancy restaurants to fast food and take-out joints. In 1955, the restaurant industry comprised 25% of the family food dollar. In 2017, that number has risen to 48%. U.S. restaurant sales are nearing $800 billion a year.*

But here’s a question: Is restaurant dining as healthy as dining on food we make at home? All too often, the answer is a resounding no. Let’s check in with the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). This consumer advocacy organization has been working towards a healthier food system since its founding in 1971. CSPI offers many resources for consumers on making healthy choices – and avoiding unhealthy ones.

One of the ways that CSPI has come to public attention is through their annual Xtreme Eating Awards. These “awards” reveal some of the most unhealthy, highest calorie meals at several of the nation’s most popular restaurant chains. They highlight what they refer to as “nutritional nightmares”: meals loaded with calories, sugars, fats and sodium, Many of the single meals they point out have more calories in a single meal than the 2,000 calories that nutritionists recommend for an entire day.

In the 2017 Xtreme Eating Awards they highlight a single meal that is so large it has to be served on a tray instead of a plate. The highest calorie meal they cite tops in at 2820 calories! With each item, the present an analysis of the meal and how it stacks up next to the nutritional recommended daily guidelines.

“Leave it to America’s chain restaurant industry to market a stack of pancakes as a side dish, or to lard up quesadillas and pasta with pizza toppings, or to ruin a perfectly good sweet potato,” said CSPI senior nutritionist Lindsay Moyer. “These meals are extreme, but even the typical dishes served at restaurants are a threat to Americans’ health because they increase the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and more.”

Making better, healthier choices when dining out

Part of the reason that restaurant meals can be so unhealthy is that portion sizes continue trending up. CSPI offers another article called Servings on Steroids, which shows pictures of popular restaurant options in the actual portion size juxtaposed with photos of a recommended portion size.

For another analysis of restaurant meals, they look at a recent study in which researchers analyzed main dishes at independent and small-chain restaurants in Boston. The average entrée (with sides) had roughly 1,300 calories. Check out the results in Restaurant Roulette – it’s a reminder that just because it’s a salad or it isn’t fried, it doesn’t mean that it’s healthy!

Does that mean you shouldn’t eat out? No, only that you should make informed choices when you do. See the CSPI feature on what to order when you eat out. You can quiz yourself in this article – they offer two menu options and assign “winner” and “loser” labels – it’s useful to help think about choices through a healthy lens.

There is some good news. Federal guidelines require chains with 20 or more restaurants to include calorie counts on menus. Many smaller operations do so voluntarily to meet customer requests. Consumers are increasingly asking for healthy options when they dine out:

  • 70% of diners say they are more likely to choose a restaurant that offers healthy menu options.*
  • 66% of American consumers say they are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers locally sourced food items.
  • Future trends will include local sourcing, fresh produce, healthy eating, and an emphasis on authentic items.

*Restaurant statistics source



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