Eating at Most Restaurants May be Less Healthy Than Fast Food Meals

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U.S. researchers compared more than 3,000 entrees and found that despite public perception, the offerings at fast-casual restaurants are healthier than traditional fast-food entrees, but tend to have more calories.

The researchers found the average fast food meal had 200 less calories than the average fast casual meal. More of the fast-casual dishes were also at the high end of the calorie range.

Danielle Schoffman, a researcher with the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina in Columbia and the lead author of the paper, noted that there has been huge growth in the fast casual restaurant sector in recent years. Consumers generally have the perception that these restaurants are a fresher and healthier alternative to fast food.

Schoffman explained that when participants in the study were asked to reduce their fast food intake, they often wanted to know if these fast casual restaurants also ‘count’. Intrigued by these assumptions, the researchers became interested in looking at the calorie data for entrees at both restaurant types to see if they were true.

The calorie counts of 3,193 entrees sold at restaurants were examined. The restaurant surveyed representing 28 fast casual chains and 24 different fast food chains. They found the average fast food entree had about 560 calories compared to the typical fast-casual entree with about 760 calories. The team was surprised by the overall results and especially finding that a greater proportion of fast casual restaurants entrees exceeded the average of 640 calories.

Shoffman did however point out that there were many high calorie options at both types of restaurant and advised consumers to make use of posted calorie information on menus and restaurant websites to make an informed meal selection. All restaurants will have options available that are more and less healthy.

Schoffman hopes to compare nutritional value of the meals in the future, as this was not done in this study. Some entrees feature healthy ingredients like vegetables and brown rice. These are often served in very large portions and it would be more reasonable for most adults not to eat it at a single sitting, but rather in two meals.

Melissa Rifkin told Reuters Health by email that based on nutritional value, the best option is to go with the fast casual foods. This does however not mean that they’re necessarily better when it comes to calorie content. Rifkin, a registered dietitian with Montefiore Medical Center in New York was not involved in the research, but notes that fast casual foods portion sizes are often larger than fast foods. This would cause the higher calorie count.

Lauren Graf, also a registered dietitian with Montefiore Medical Center, cautions that an over emphasis on numbers such as those of calories and sodium, can distract customers from what makes foods healthy. It is important to look at health holistically and be aware of things like nutrient density, fiber content, antioxidants, quality of the fat, etc.

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