In the U.S. we eat about one-third of our food away from home – including both fast food and full service restaurants. A study published this week in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that you may be getting almost an entire day’s worth of calories in one sit-down restaurant meal.
The researchers looked at the nutritional value of meals at 21 full-service restaurant chains and found that, on average, a single meal (entrée, side and one-half appetizer) contains almost 1500 calories, 28 grams saturated fat and 3300 milligrams sodium. Add a shared dessert and a beverage and the calories jump to over 2000.
Eating this way regularly can lead to overweight and obesity – and increased risk for several cancers, including colorectal, post-menopausal breast and pancreatic cancer.
So if you enjoy eating and good health, it’s worth taking a little time to develop some basic strategies to do both. Here are some ways I approach eating out to keep restaurant meals healthier (and sometimes more economical):
- Eat half of any restaurant dish. I either split with a companion or start by asking for a take home box immediately; put half in the box and take it home for lunch or dinner tomorrow.
- Choose the options that are marked as “healthy” choices or for seniors. In this study they found these menu items were typically lower in calories and fat, although still sky-high in sodium. Even with these, eating just two-thirds is often plenty.
- Chose the broiled or baked meat, fish or poultry rather than fried; I also ask for any sauces or cheese on the side, to help control how much I eat. These toppings are often high in fat and salt.
- Rather than ordering an entrée, I sometimes prefer to make a meal from sides. Instead of half-pound burgers for example, I order the sliders and supplement with a couple of vegetable sides.
- Be smart about the bread and chips. One of the hardest things for me is to have that basket of bread or chips on the table. I try to portion out a small amount on a plate and make it last until the meal comes. With bread, if it isn’t anything special, it’s easy for me to avoid; with tortilla chips, I often ask to have them removed, if my companions are okay with that.
- Finally, I often skip ordering any caloric beverage and go with plain water, or order unsweetened tea or coffee.
Of course, it’s easier to do all this if you aren’t “starving” when you get to the restaurant. Sometimes it helps to have a piece of fruit before heading to the restaurant so you can make smart choices.
What do you do to make healthful restaurant choices?
For more information check out our Health Tips for Dining Out.