Your restaurant meal is just as bad as fast food, study warns

This June 22, 2015 photo shows the perfect steakhouse steak in Concord, N.H. This dish is from a recipe by Elizabeth Karmel. AP Photo/Matthew Mead

If you think you’re doing your health a favour by choosing a sit-down restaurant over heading to a fast food joint for your next meal, you’ve got it all wrong. In a new study, American researchers say that eating at a restaurant is comparable to – or even worse, in some cases – eating drive-thru fare.

Whether it’s served on a plate and with cutlery or in a brown paper bag, your meal is still packed with more calories, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium than what you’d make out of your kitchen.

“These findings reveal that eating at a full-service restaurant is not necessarily healthier than eating at a fast food outlet. In fact, you may be at a higher risk of overeating in a full service restaurant than when eating fast food,” lead researcher, Ruopeng An, said in a statement.

“My advice to those hoping to consume a healthy diet and not overeat is that it is healthier to prepare your own foods, and to avoid eating outside the home whenever possible,” he said.

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READ MORE: If menus shared calories, sodium, would you make healthier choices?

University of Illinois scientists looked at eight years of data from national health and nutrition surveys to get to their findings. About 18,000 Americans answered questions about their diet.

Turns out, those who ate at a restaurant were taking in more healthy nutrients, such as vitamins, potassium and omega-3 fatty acids than those who ate at home or at a fast food restaurant, but those benefits are cancelled out by all of the fat, sodium and cholesterol they were also getting from their meals.

The difference was “substantial” – an extra intake of 58 milligrams of cholesterol, 10 grams more of total fat, and 3.49 more grams of saturated fat compared to their counterparts who ate at home.

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Those who ate at a fast food chain added about 300 milligrams of sodium per day to their daily intake while a restaurant bumped the salt up by 412 milligrams per day, on average.

READ MORE: Why your fast food friendly neighbourhood is making you gain weight

Recommendations for sodium intake vary between 1,500 to 2,300 milligrams per day. If you’re eating at home, you’re already likely exceeding this benchmark, but eating out only makes your total intake skyrocket, An warned.

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Ultimately, restaurant fare also tacked on an extra 200 calories to your waistline.

The findings suggest that restaurant meals may be misleading: while they’re cooked in a kitchen instead of simply thrown in the deep fryer, the portions are hefty and may be doused in sugary- and fat-laden sauces.

READ MORE: What Canadians want to know about what’s in fast food meals

Experts typically call for ordering an appetizer, splitting an entrée between two people, or asking your server to pack up half of your meal before it even arrives to your table.

Labelling nutritional information on menus at both fast food joints and full-service restaurants has been on health officials’ radar for years now.

In Ontario, Toronto Public Health, the Ontario Medical Association and the Heart and Stroke Foundation have called for menus that include sodium.

READ MORE: Does your BMI increase each time you eat fast food?

Canadian research from 2014 suggested that nutritional information on menus would help consumers eat healthier in restaurants.

Seventy-five per cent of Canadians wanted to see calorie content and sodium levels on restaurant menus, according to the research out of the University of Toronto. In turn, they’d save 474 calories and a hefty 1,360 milligrams of sodium per meal.

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Study participants changed their order between 17 and 30 per cent of the time after looking over nutritional information when it was provided to them.

READ MORE: How fast food tried to get svelte in 2014

When consumers made a change to their order, it was the “shock and disbelief” at the sodium levels in the dish that changed their minds.

An’s full findings were published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Read the full findings here.

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