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Food/Nutrition Columnist Author: Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN, Food & Nutrition Columnist - Last Updated: Sep 7, 2017 - 10:06:33 PM

Eat Out At Your Own Risk

By Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN, Food & Nutrition Columnist -
Oct 23, 2016 - 10:01:54 AM

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( - Eating out is an American pastime. A USDA survey showed that more than one-third of our daily calories come from food eaten away from home. Whether you eat out or take-out, foods prepared outside the home have more calories, saturated fat and sodium than food prepared at home. If you decide to eat out where should you go – fast food chain, fast casual chain or a local restaurant in town? The answers may surprise you.

Chipotle, Red Lobster, or Panera Bread versus Burger King, McDonalds and Wendy’s – and the winner is the fast food chains. Fast casual restaurants, whose industry is rapidly expanding, have on average more than 750 calories per entrée, whereas fast food entrées average 560. Surprised? So were the researchers at the Arnold School of Public Health at University of South Carolina. They looked over the menus from 34 different fast food chains and 24 casual restaurant chains and found that the casual restaurant chains, like Chili’s, have more high calorie menu items.

What drives these findings? In a word – portions. At a fast food chain, burgers, sandwiches, fries and drinks are a certain portion size. You may be able to customize your order to a certain degree but a meal is pretty standard. Often you take out your selection so the option to refill your soda or order more food is eliminated. Go to a fast casual restaurant and you are more likely to eat in. Chips and salsa or a refillable bread basket are placed on the table. Drinks are refilled regularly, even if you do not request more, despite the fact that the original drink came in a quart-sized glass. Alcoholic drinks or beer are often an option which means more calories. Next is the entrée, which is enormous.

Though all chains will give you the option to take uneaten food home, few people do. Our human biology works against us when we see and smell tempting food. Our sympathetic nervous system revs up, insulin secretions drop blood sugar, and our stomachs relax. These physiological changes prepare us to eat all the food within reach. That was fine in the Stone Age when a large filling meal might be an infrequent happening, but eating out 3 or more times a week, it can be a recipe for weight gain. Even if you exercise self-control and take half of your entrée home, you may feel so righteous about this healthy choice that you order dessert and coffee adding more calories. End result, we order our favorite dishes because they tempt us and then we eat more than we should because the portions are too large.

Would you be better off eating in your local diner or family restaurant in town? Not according to researchers from Tufts University who looked at meals from non-chain (local) restaurants that served American, Chinese, Greek, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Thai, and Vietnamese foods. These restaurants, because they are not chains, are exempt from providing nutrition and calorie information for their menu items. Approximately 50% of all restaurants in the US fall into this non-chain category. The researchers found that American, Chinese and Italian non-chain restaurants offered the highest calorie count per meal, close to 1,500, which may be more than some women need in an entire day. Women, typically, need fewer calories than men, so they need to be particularly vigilant when eating out.

What is your take-away message from all this information?  If you eat out frequently you need to be an informed consumer. Recognize that portions are huge. Consider splitting a meal. Order an appetizer as a main course, then the breadbasket or the chips and dip won’t sabotage your entire meal. Don’t be embarrassed to take leftovers home. It is the sign of a smart eater. Split dessert or skip dessert and order a flavored coffee instead. When you go to a fast food chain order small. Kid’s meals can let you indulge in favorites once in a while without going overboard. At sandwich shops, order a half sandwich if available or split with your lunch companion. Some chains offer a half sandwich, cup-of-soup option. Don’t be seduced by customized salads, the add-ons and dressing can often make them more calorie dense than a burger. 

Bottom line: Eating out can be a minefield, tread with caution.

© NRH Nutrition Consultants, Inc.
Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN is a registered dietitian and the author of 30 books. Available as eBooks from iTunes and Amazon Kindle:

Diabetes Counter

Calorie Counter

Protein Counter

Healthy Wholefoods Counter

Complete Food Counter

Fat and Cholesterol Counter

Available in print from Gallery Books:

Most Complete Food Counter, 3rd Ed.

Your Complete Food Counter App:


For more information on Jo-Ann and her books, go to:


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