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The Real (Calorie) Cost of Dining Out

If you enjoy eating out, and you’re trying to eat healthfully and watch your weight, take note.  Your favorite restaurant down the street is probably sabotaging your best efforts.  Two recently published studies discovered that typical restaurant meals contain far more calories than we might expect.  So many more in fact, that it's no wonder the scale is stuck.

Researchers at the University of Toronto analyzed the nutrition information at 19 sit-down chain restaurants (not fast food), and they found that the average breakfast meal served up over 1,226 calories; the average lunch contained 1,000 calories; and dinner rang in at 1,128 calories.   The second study from Tufts University analyzed lunch and dinner meals (with sides), at independent and small chain restaurants in the Boston area.  The meals they tested averaged over 1,300 calories each.  Add on a beverage or two, and dessert, and you could easily rack up a button- popping, belt-busting 2,000 calories when you dine out!

Yikes!  I hate to be a spoilsport here, but that’s a lot of calories, considering what most of us need in a day.  The FDA recommends a daily average of 2,000 calories, but in reality, our calorie needs are determined by our age, frame size, muscle mass, and activity level, and can range from a low of 1,400 calories for a smaller, older woman, and a high in excess of 3,000 calories for younger men and very active individuals.  You can calculate how many calories you need each day here.

Larger chain restaurants with at least 20 outlets in the U.S. will soon be required to post nutrition information on their menu, under President Obama’s 2010 Affordable Care Act.  However, the law won’t apply to smaller chains, or independent restaurants like the ones reviewed in these studies. So what should you do about those dinner reservations for tomorrow night?

I always recommend eat in more than out.  Save those high calorie restaurant meals for a special once or twice a week treat.  And if you know you will be going out for dinner, by all means, eat a healthy breakfast at home, pack a lunch, and get some extra exercise to offset any excess calories that you’ll be eating.

A few other dining out tips:

  • Try to make your menu selections wisely.  Do you really need the appetizer, or will a salad do?  Keep in mind that the grilled fish special is a lot lower in calories than the lobster mac and cheese.
  • If your portion looks very large when it’s served, ask the waiter for a box and pack up half of it before you start eating.  Out of sight, out of mind, but if it’s sitting on the plate, you’ll be more inclined to finish it.
  • If you usually order an appetizer and dessert, consider splitting the main course with your dinner partner.
  • Skip the high calorie starchy sides like potatoes or rice.  Ask to swap them for an extra vegetable.  This can usually save you at least 200 calories
  • Always ask how the dish is prepared.  If you hear words like crispy, battered, cream sauce, au gratin, and the king of all unhealthy foods - loaded - keep moving down the menu.
  • Never, ever, order the rib dinner!  The research studies mentioned above found that the rack of rib dinner with all the trimmings provides about 3500 calories - 2 days worth of calories for many of us.

Do you think you will be more likely to choose a lower calorie meal if nutrition information is available on the menu?

Eat well!

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