Restaurant meals still high in calories, sodium

foodIn an effort to combat rising rates of obesity in adults and kids, the government mandated that large chain restaurants include nutrition information about their meals on menus. One year after that law was passed in 2010, however, there was little change in the amount of fat and sodium in these eateries’ offerings, according to a study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Even when menu items changed, one new item’s healthier content was often offset by another’s less-healthy ingredients—an overall pattern of “one step forward, one step back,” the authors concluded.

About the study

Researchers collected nutrition information from 213 restaurants websites in early 2010 and again about one year later. The government passed the menu labeling law during that time frame.

The researchers compared data on entrées only. Side items were not included except in combination meals. Nutritional information on foods from children’s menus, when available, were separated from adult menu items.

Restaurants involved in the study included take-out/delivery, fast food, casual, buffet, family dining and upscale chains.

In the approximately one year after the labeling law was passed, the study found that:

  • Overall calorie and sodium content had not changed significantly, and most restaurants hadn’t changed their menus at all.
  • Family-style restaurants lowered sodium in their high-sodium choices, but foods still contained much more sodium than guidelines recommend.
  • Fast-food restaurants slightly lowered calorie content in kids’ entrées.
  • Few children’s menus changed. When they did, sodium levels went up, on average, instead of down.
The take-home message
The authors wrote that their findings do not support claims by the restaurant industry that menus are trending healthier. Even the few, small changes noted in the study “may be due to chance,” they wrote.

The labeling law is still being implemented. In the meantime, people who want to make healthy choices when dining out can follow this advice from

  • Make your first course a filling, veggie-laden salad
  • Order steamed, grilled or broiled dishes
  • Avoid fried or sautéed items
  • Choose main dishes that include vegetables
  • Opt for small- or medium-sized beverages, main dishes and sides
  • Order from the menu instead of an unlimited buffet
  • Ask for salad dressing on the side
  • Don’t add butter
  • Choose fruits for dessert more often than not

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