Even as restaurants make changes to their menus to provide "healthier" options, the number of average calories and sodium in a meal remains the same, according to a new study.
Researchers from the RAND Corp. and the Institute for Population Health Improvement at UC Davis Health System found that in the spring of 2010, an entree from a U.S. chain restaurant had an average of 670 calories. But when they looked at the average calorie counts in a meal a year later in the spring of 2011, there had been no change.
Sodium levels weren't much better -- the average amount of sodium in a U.S. chain restaurant meal was 1,515 milligrams in spring 2010, and only went down to 1,500 milligrams a year later.
"Across the restaurant industry, we see a pattern of one step forward, one step back," study researcher Helen Wu, a policy and research analyst at the Institute for Population Health Improvement, said in a statement. "Restaurants make changes to their menus regularly, but they may make both healthy and unhealthy changes simultaneously. This study provides objective evidence that overall, we did not see a new wave of healthier entrees come in to replace less healthy ones."
The study, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, involved analysis of 26,256 menu options from 213 restaurants, 109 of which had data on children's menus (with 1,794 children's menu items). Restaurants ranged from fast-food, to fast-casual, to family, to upscale, and cuisine ranged from American, to pizza, to sandwiches, to Italian, to Asian, to snacks (such as bakery items or ice cream) to seafood and steaks.
Researchers specifically chose the spring 2010 to 2011 time period for their analysis because they wanted to see how menu options changed a year after the federal menu-labeling law was passed, and also wanted to test the "validity of claims that restaurants are increasingly offering overall more healthful menu options." Indeed, 207 of the 213 restaurants in the study were subject to the menu labeling law.
Researchers found that slightly more restaurants made changes in a healthy direction between 2010 and 2011 -- 10 percent -- which is higher than the number of restaurants that made changes in an unhealthy direction -- 7 percent.
For instance, "the 26 restaurants that made healthy changes to sodium in added items did reduce it by 707 mg on average, whereas the 11 that made
unhealthy changes to sodium in added items increased it by less (547 mg)," the researchers wrote in the study.
They found no major differences in the healthfulness of children's entrees, except for a very slight decrease in average calories between 2010 and 2011.
"Across a large and diverse group of U.S. chain restaurant brands, results do not support the hypotheses that voluntary restaurant industry efforts, the impending implementation of a federal menu labeling law, or any changes in consumer preferences led to meaningful changes in the average energy or sodium content of entrees between 2010 and 2011," the researchers wrote in the study. "If healthy changes did occur, then a sufficient number of unhealthy changes to entrées also occurred that offset them, on average."
Earlier, the same researchers found in a Public Health Nutrition study that 96 percent of entrees from chain restaurants don't abide by USDA saturated fat and sodium recommendations.
Of course, we can't say we're totally surprised that "healthy" menu options may not really be that healthy. Take a look at what we found about egg-white breakfast sandwiches, for instance.