Posts Tagged ‘Portion Sizes’
That too much fondness of fast food can cause weight problems is old news. But the idea that nearly all types of restaurants dish up meals that can expand your waistline has not been as widely discussed – until now.
Two separate studies, one from the University of Toronto, Canada, the other from Tufts University, Boston, Massachusetts, found that most restaurant food is not all that superior to hamburgers and fries when it comes to calorie and fat content.
The researchers who conducted the Toronto study discovered that the average meal in 19 different restaurant chains contained 1,128 calories, or about 56 percent of the recommended daily intake of 2,000 calories for adults. Some popular fast food items have considerably less than that. And excessive amounts of calories are not only found in dinner entrées but in lunch and breakfast servings as well.
Besides calories, the authors of the study report also expressed concern over high salt, fat and cholesterol content, sometimes exceeding between 60 and 150 percent of the recommended limits.
For the Tufts study, the researchers focused on calories in meals purchased at independent and small chain restaurants, which are exempt from having to post nutritional information on their menus, as it is required of larger chains. The results showed even higher counts than what their bigger competitors offered – a whopping 1,327 calories on average.
More than 90 percent of the small chain eateries included in the study served portion sizes that covered at least one third of a day’s worth of calories. 10 percent went beyond that, and a few even exceeded the recommended calorie count of an entire day – on just one plate. (Perhaps Adam Richman of Man v. Food should pay them a visit.)
“Considering that more than half the restaurants in the U.S. are independent or small chain and won’t be covered by labeling requirements in the future, this is something consumers need to pay attention to,” said Dr. Lorien Urban, one of the researchers who was involved in the Tufts study.
But even calorie postings on menus and billboards where they are required by law have been proven to be unreliable in prior investigations by Tufts and others. In fact, fast food places with their largely automated apportioning methods can find it easier to determine accurate measurements than restaurants that rely on estimates by kitchen personnel. There is only so much accuracy you can expect when dishes are individually crafted by hand, said one executive of Olive Garden, a nationally operating restaurant chain.
Still, restaurant patrons don’t have to feel completely helpless if they want to exercise some measure of control over their calorie intake. Dr. Lisa Young, professor for nutrition at New York University (NYU) and author of the blog “The Portion Teller”, recommends following an easily applicable restaurant survival guide she has compiled for her readers.
Being aware that portion sizes in most restaurants have exponentially grown over the past few decades is an important start, she says. It may look like you’re getting more value for your money, but the fact is that you will likely overindulge when you’re faced with an overflowing plate. Instead, she advises to order only half portions whenever available, or just an appetizer. Or you can split one entrée with a dinner partner.
Choose a salad or soup if they offer healthier alternatives to, let’s say, meat dishes. But be careful with dressings and creams – that’s where extra, unnecessary calories come in.
Don’t forget that your drinks have calories, too, sometimes lots of them. Sodas are notorious for high sugar content, and so are fruit juices and milk shakes. Alcoholic beverages count as well. The more you have of these, the more likely you’ll lose your inhibitions and end up overeating, she warns.
Desserts, of course, are always hard to say ‘no’ to, but you are not without choices. A few pieces of fresh fruit can be refreshing and they come without much regret.
What matters most – especially if you eat out often – is to keep track of your consumption, just like you would on any weight management program, if necessary with the help of a food diary. With the necessary precautions, you should still be able to enjoy a nice meal that someone else prepared for you.
For the last six years, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer advocacy group, has given what it calls the annual “Xtreme Eating Awards” to restaurants for serving excessively large portions and using ingredients deemed to be unhealthy. Some of the most popular eateries in America are among this year’s “winners,” including family favorites like the Cheesecake Factory, the International House of Pancakes and Maggiano’s Little Italy.
The list, which is published on the CSPI website, rates restaurant dishes for calorie count as well as fat, sugar and sodium content. Some of the findings are outright startling. Single meals like the Cheesecake Factory’s “Bistro Shrimp Pasta,” a spaghetti dish with crispy battered shrimp in a cream sauce, easily exceed the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) recommended calorie count for an entire day. Even fruit drinks like Smoothie King’s “Peanut Power Smoothie with Grapes” that sound healthy are in fact extremely caloric and laden with high amounts of sugar.
These findings stand in stark contrast to the changing eating habits of many Americans who have become more health-conscious in recent years and who would choose to eat better and also less if given the chance. For example, at least one third of interviewed restaurant patrons said they would be agreeable to having their portion sizes reduced if such options were offered, according to studies on the subject.
“People are willing to downsize, but you have to ask them to do it [for them],” said Dr. Janet Schwarz, a psychologist and assistant professor of marketing at Tulane University in an interview with “The Salt,” a production of National Public Radio (NPR).
Tests have shown that displaying calorie content, as it is now required for larger restaurant chains, has already made a difference in consumer choices. Researchers also found if people receive such information before they make their purchases, they are more inclined to order less or leave more on the plate than if they already have a big pile of food in front of them. The well-known experiments by Dr. Brian Wansink, a professor for marketing and nutritional science at Cornell University and author of “Mindless Eating – Why We Eat More Than We Think,” have demonstrated how our consumption tends to increase proportionally with the amounts of food available to us.
We need to change both sides of the equation, restaurants and their customers, in terms of expectations and what is considered of value, says Dr. Lisa Young, a nutrition professor at New York University (NYU). We all agree that portions have grown much too big over time. “Now that we are in agreement, we need to figure out ways to scale back,” she says.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.