Non-Chain Restaurants Tip the Scales

by Marissa Donovan

New research out of the Friedman School and the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) shows chain restaurants aren’t the only ones serving up excessive portions to diners.

While fast food and chain restaurants (defined as 20 or more locations) are often demonized for pumping out huge portions, it turns out they aren’t the only “bad guys.” Small, local restaurants pack a similar punch when it comes to calories served, according to a new study in the Journal of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

William A. Masters, Ph. D, study co-author and professor of economics at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, explains that although the issue of oversized restaurant portions has been apparent for some time now, it has never been formally studied. But now, there is a clear motivation to do so.

“With menu labeling comes the possibility of actually controlling portion sizes, so it’s finally worthwhile to measure and publish the data. Measuring something is a key first step towards improving it,” he said.

Researchers at Friedman as well as the HNRCA measured the calorie content of both chain and non-chain dinner entrées in 123 restaurants across Boston, San Francisco, and Little Rock, AR. The study focused on the most popular meals (with accompanying sides) from each of the restaurants, finding that a whopping 92 percent of meals, from chain and non-chain eateries, exceeded energy requirements for a single meal, which was benchmarked as 570 calories.

On average, a non-chain restaurant meal packed in 1,205 calories—more than half the daily requirement for women (2,000 calories) and almost half of men’s daily requirement (2,500 calories). In other words, based on these average calorie requirements, one restaurant meal was actually calorically equivalent to two full meals for average female diners (or 2.6 meals for women who need only 1,500 calories a day!).

What’s more? This striking number does not include appetizers, drinks, or dessert—which can contribute hundreds of additional calories. And the total calories in these non-chain restaurant meals were similar to the amounts measured in fast food and chain restaurants, which are commonly criticized for their role in promoting obesity.

Researchers measured dinner entrée calorie content in many different cuisines including American, Chinese, Greek, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Thai, and Vietnamese. American, Italian and Chinese fare had the highest average energy density, reaching 1,495 calories per meal. Compared to American cuisine, Greek, Japanese, Vietnamese, Mexican, and Thai entrées delivered fewer calories.

There is sometimes a perception that smaller, local, mom-and-pop type restaurants are “healthier” than their well-known chain restaurant colleagues, but this study shows that this just isn’t true. It seems that eating out at restaurants in general promotes overeating, regardless of the ubiquity of the restaurant. The portions served at restaurants may even unintentionally inform portions at subsequent home-cooked meals, further exacerbating the problem.

While this study paints a grim picture for eating out, there are changes that can be made—both on a consumer level and policy level to combat this problem.

The researchers propose extending menu calorie labeling legislation to include all restaurants, not just large chains. As the rule stands, chain restaurants with 20 or more locations are required to provide calorie information on menus, with mandatory compliance by the end of 2016. While this legislation is great for diners at chain restaurants, it only affects about 50 percent of all restaurants/food outlets. Admittedly, enacting a regulation such as this at smaller restaurants is easier said than done.

“Like so many policy problems, there’s no one magic bullet. Making restaurant meals healthier will involve a lot of local steps, like municipal ordinances and state laws,” explained Masters. “There is also room for many voluntary steps by individuals, including food writers and restaurant reviewers as well as restaurants, groups and associations.”

Another idea proposed by the study authors is offering scaled down entrée choices at restaurants. Giving diners the option of half or third portions at adjusted prices would allow them to keep their portions in check before being tempted by a full plate of food. Until then, restaurant diners can take matters into their own hands and ask for half (or more) of their meal to be boxed to take home before they begin eating.

“Making the decision [to take half home] early gives power to your far-sighted self. The key is to make these decisions before you’re hungry, and especially before your appetite is revved up by an oversized dish,” said Masters.

Though, he admits that it’s very difficult to actually follow this advice, mainly because packing up and taking food home is such an awkward step.

“In practice, I think it’s much smarter just to choose menu items that will come in small enough sizes for you to be comfortable eating the whole thing. Use your far-sighted self to identify restaurants that offer delicious foods in portions suitable for your body size and activity level, then praise them for it on Yelp and Tripadvisor,” he said.

Don’t be fooled by the healthy façade of smaller, local restaurants—their dishes can also be calorie-laden. But you don’t have to give up dining out all together if you plan ahead and take steps to eat smaller portions.

Masters is confident that the problem of excessively large portion sizes can be solved.

“A first step is to realize that it is a problem, to measure what’s served and think carefully about what customers really want,” he said.

Marissa Donovan is a registered dietitian and second-year student in the MS Nutrition Communication & Behavior Change program with a focus in US Food and Nutrition Policy at Friedman. She loves hiking, traveling, finding new restaurants, and, of course, Netflix.

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