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Jul 30, 2013

Small Restaurants Have Calorie-Packed Items, Too

Meals from non-chain or small-chain restaurants typically have higher calorie content than their fast-food peers.

Since chain restaurants were required to post nutritional content for public consumption, many establishments have received criticism for their belly-busting menu items. We go to restaurants for delicious, flavorful foods and many times, that means high levels of fat, sodium, and calories. In fact, a menu item from Long John Silver’s recently dubbed “heart attack on a hook” contains two weeks’ worth of trans fats, more than twice the daily sodium recommendation, and more calories than some adults should eat over the course of a day. And that’s not atypical when it comes to chain restaurants, especially those serving fast food.  

But what about small, independent restaurants that don't need to make the nutritional value of their menu items publicly available? Are their foods just as bad for us as the chain restaurants that are required to have transparency when it comes to nutrition? Unfortunately, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that menu items in independent restaurants have just as bad, if not worse, nutritional value than larger chain restaurants.

This study, which was conducted in Boston, randomly sampled foods from the most popular types of restaurants in the U.S.: Mexican, American, Chinese, Italian, Japanese, Thai, Indian, Greek and Vietnamese. All restaurants included in this study were independent or small-chain sit-down restaurants that are exempt from posting nutritional information. Researchers used a method called bomb calorimetry— which uses heat to measure the amount of calories contained in a meal— to obtain nutritional information. After analyzing a total of 157 meals, investigators found that all entree items had “excessive” caloric content (more than one-third of our daily energy requirement, which is 2,000 calories a day), containing 1,327 calories on average. More than three-fourths of the meals contained at least 1,000 calories and nearly 8% of meals contained 2,000 calories or more. But perhaps most surprising was that calorie content was nearly 50% greater than that of popular meals from the largest national chain restaurants.

Based on these findings, experts suggest that all restaurants, including small, independent establishments, should be required to provide calorie labeling for menu items. Not only would this empower patrons to make more educated decisions about their food choices, it may discourage restaurants from offering absurdly unhealthy menu items. The average American eats out as much as five times a week, and it’s essential that restaurants offer healthier options to help combat obesity and improve America’s health.

Questions for You to Consider

  • How many calories should I consume to maintain my current weight?
  • How many calories needed to maintain weight depends on a number of factors, like age, height, weight and gender. It also depends on how physically active you are, since the more active you are, the more calories you need for energy.
  • What's more important—how much I eat or what I eat?
  • When it comes to health, it’s important to watch how much you eat and find a balance between the number of calories you consume and how many you burn. But it’s also important to watch what you eat and try to eat heart-healthy foods like fruits and vegetables, whole-grains and lean protein, as much as possible.

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