Eating out is a nice way to spend the evening and catch up with friends or family. The atmosphere’s charming, the music’s pleasant, the food looks beautiful and it almost tastes better than our home cooked meals. And one of the reasons why we choose to eat at respectable restaurants is that they serve healthier food than fast food chains. Well, not quite.
A new study conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois has found that full-service restaurants which serve more “homey” meals rather than burgers and tacos still prepare food that’s much richer in calories, fat, sugar and sodium than home cooked meals.
Ruopeng An, professor of community health and kinesiology over at the University of Illinois, gave a statement to Reuters Health explaining the gravity of the salutation. He said that people are well aware that fast food is bad for their health, going as far as to refer to it as “junk food”.
However he added that “people don’t know much about the food provided by full-service restaurants and if it is better or healthier compared to fast food or compared to food prepared and consumed at home”. This is exactly the reason why he and his colleagues set out to investigate the matter.
For his study, published in the in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, professor An looked at the dietary and health data collected by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. He ended up examining the answers of more than 18.000 American adults.
The subjects were asked to say what and where they had eaten in the past two (2) days. Roughly a third of them informed that they ate at a fast food restaurant at least on one of the days if not on both of them, and one quarter informed that they ate at a full-service restaurant at least on one of the days if not on both of them.
Out of all of them, those who ate at home turned out to have the healthiest diets. On average, the subjects who preferred to eat at fast food restaurants consumed an extra 190 calories each day when compared to the subjects who ate home cooked meals. They also consumed an extra 11 grams of fat, 3.5 grams of saturated fat, 10 milligrams of cholesterol, and 300 milligrams of sodium.
The subjects who preferred to eat at full-service restaurants didn’t fair much better either. On average, they consumed an extra 187 calories each day when compared to the subjects who ate home cooked meals. They also consumed an extra 10 grams of fat and 2.5 grams of saturated fat. The extra cholesterol added up to roughly 60 milligrams, and the extra sodium was at least 400 milligrams.
The study also showed that fast food restaurants are generally frequented by people with little education and low income, while full-service restaurants are generally frequented by people with middle-range income.
Interestingly enough, professor An noticed that when people took fast food meals at home, the number of extra calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium did not drop. But when people took full-service restaurant meals at home, the amount of extra calories was reduced by 80, the amount of the extra sodium was reduced by 80 milligrams, and the amount of fat was also slightly reduced.
The author has one working theory – people who dine out at full-service restaurants have no knowledge of how many calories and nutrients each meal contains. This makes them much more likely to overeat, and they typically pay less attention to the amount of extra calories that they consume.
Lori Rosenthal, dietitian over at the Montefiore Medical Center (New York City), was not involved in the study but gave a statement explaining the difference between full-service restaurant meals and home cooked meals.
She said that when people cook their own food, they are free to make choices such as replacing full fat cheese with reduced fat cheese. But when they eat at restaurants, the choice is made by the chef and they are not aware of what that choice is.
The study authors suggested that public health interventions should be targeting dinning-out in general, not just eating at fast food places, in order to improve the diets of Americans across the country.
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