Americans love eating out. Unfortunately, most restaurant meals exceed calorie recommendations. It's no surprise that we have an obesity epidemic in this country.
Chain restaurants in the U.S. are currently required to post calorie counts on their menus. Hopefully, this information will nudge us to make healthier choices and also encourage chains to re-formulate their menu items.
In the meantime, more than half of restaurants are not chains, and therefore, are exempt from calorie labeling.
So just how many calories do these meals contain?
To answer that question, researchers from Tufts University conducted a study on the calorie counts of non-chain restaurants between 2011-2014 in three metro areas (Boston, San Francisco, and Little Rock).
Here's what they found. Most restaurant meals are super-sized and contain very high calorie counts, similar to those in chain restaurants. Nine out of 10 meals from non-chain restaurants exceeded calorie recommendations for a single meal. The average meal contained 1,200 calories (yikes!), which amounts to more than a half a day's worth of calories. American, Italian, and Chinese cuisine fared the worst, with meals averaging 1,500 calories.
While we would expect some meals to be high in calories, such as tempura dishes (which are fried), the high calorie counts in other dishes such as chicken teriyaki may come as a bit of a shock to some people. The researchers found that even a Greek salad contained nearly 1,000 calories.
As a long time portion-size researcher, I am not at all surprised. Most meals at both chain and non-chain restaurants are much too big, and therefore, provide far too many calories.
The researchers wrote: "This study extends previous work and indicates that restaurants in general, rather than specific types of restaurants, can facilitate obesity by exposing patrons to portion sizes that induce overeating through established biological mechanisms that are largely outside conscious control."
Indeed, it would be a great idea to cook at home more often. But if you do want to dine out, here are some simple tips to help you trim down the calories of your favorite meals.
1. Share, share, and share!
This is a great portion-control trick and will help you save calories. Share a main dish with your dinner companion and you will get half the number of calories. To avoid feeling deprived, start with a healthy salad or appetizer.
2. Order an appetizer as your main meal.
You may not want to eat the same thing as your dining companion, so sharing may not be possible. Many restaurants these days offer half portions or appetizer sizes which I promise you is enough food for one. If you are still hungry, you can always order more.
3. Order sauces on the side.
So often, it is the dressings and sauces that cause the calorie counts of your favorite meals to jump. Three simple words -- "on the side" -- can make a huge difference. Just one tablespoon of oil contains around 120 calories, and many salads contain at least 4 tablespoons of dressing! If you order sauces and dressings on the side, you do still get to enjoy the flavor while using less.
4. Wrap it up.
Leftovers make for a great accessory! Just because your favorite restaurant serves a super-size portion doesn't mean you have to finish it. My research found that many pasta entrees, for example, contain 3-4 cups pasta! (No wonder people think carbs make us fat.) If you ate half that amount, and wrapped up the rest, you'd probably be satisfied (instead of super stuffed).
5. Order more veggie-based dishes.
In some cases, you can enjoy a big portion without breaking the calorie bank. Veggie based dishes are often the way to go. A generous portion of veggies goes a long way. Not only are veggies high in fiber which signals you to stop eating, but they are so low in calories, that as long as they do not contain too much sauce, you can certainly keep your dish way under 1,000 calories. For example, I'm not worried about the calories in a jumbo plate of spaghetti squash primavera.
I provide additional portion control tricks here.
And I offer smart swaps for your favorite restaurant cuisine here.
We would love to hear some of your favorite tricks to minimize the calories in restaurant portions.