(NaturalNews) For those of you trying to watch your weight and eat healthier, don't rely on most restaurants to help you out much. That's because portions they serve exceed nutritional recommendations.
It's long been known that restaurant portions are larger than most nutritionists would advise, but a new study says it may be worse than thought, according to a new study. According to research conducted by the RAND Corporation, a staggering 96 percent of the chain restaurants examined serve larger-than-recommended portions, with the majority of main entrees falling below one-third of the Department of Agriculture's (USDA) estimated daily energy needs.
"If you're eating out tonight, your chances of finding an entree that's truly healthy are painfully low," said lead researcher Helen Wu, assistant policy analyst at RAND, in an interview with USA Today.
Wu and her research team, which published their results in the journal Public Health Nutrition, looked at 28,433 regular menu items and 1,833 children's menus at 245 restaurant chains around the nation between February and May 2010. The team then looked at USDA recommendations for the maximum daily allowances of calories, fat, saturated fat and sodium, and then divided those figures by three to get the government's recommendation for a single meal.
The majority of the dishes fell below the USDA's 667-calorie limit for a meal. But they also fell short of the requirements for sodium, fat and saturated fat; according to Uncle Sam, those should not exceed 767 mg per meal.
Misleading healthy food strategies?
The restaurant industry says it's doing what it can to help consumers make healthier choices. Eateries are "employing a wide range" of strategies to assist diners, says Joan McGlockton, vice president of food policy at the National Restaurant Association.
"Among them: putting nutritional information on menus, adding more healthful items and launching a 2011 program at nearly 100 brands in more than 25,000 locations that offers children's meals in line with 2010 dietary guidelines," USA Today reported.
But those strategies can be misleading, says Wu.
"Many items may appear healthy based on calories, but actually can be very unhealthy when you consider other important nutrition criteria," Wu said in a separate interview with the Los Angeles Times.
Do you like those deep-fried mushrooms and breaded cheese sticks? Well, one of the worst menu items, according to the study, is the appetizer, a food item that many people often eat as their main course. They are stuffed with calories, averaging 813 calories apiece as compared to the 667-calorie main entree. Chicken wings with dip were big belly busters. "I'm not ordering chicken wings anymore," Wu told the Times.
Also, so-called family restaurants are worse, even, than fast-food places, if you can believe that. The study found entrees at family restaurants, on average, contained more calories, fat and sodium than fast-food eateries. In fact, entrees at family-style eateries posted 271 more calories, 435 more milligrams of sodium and 16 more grams of fat than fast-food places, Wu said.
The study also found that kids' "specialty" drinks also pack in the calories. In fact, many specialty drinks on the kid's menu have more calories from fat and saturated fat than regular drinks. While regular menu-drinks contained an average of 360 calories, those on the kid's menus averaged 430, mostly because those menus contain a lot of milkshakes, floats and other calorie-rich fare.
Information is king
One more thing. Just because restaurants may seem like they're forthcoming regarding the caloric content of their food doesn't mean the information they are putting out is, well, accurate.
"Restaurants that made nutrition information easily accessible on websites had significantly lower energy, fat and sodium contents across menu offerings than those providing information only upon request," the researchers said.
So high is the caloric content at some restaurants, the entrees far surpass the recommended daily allowance of calories.
The USDA is set to publish new rules requiring restaurant chains of 20 or more to publish calorie counts on menus and provide even more in-depth nutritional information if requested by a patron.
"It's a start, because before diners didn't have any information at all," Wu said.