I Thought I Was Making The Healthy Choice — But Now I’m Not So Sure

Sticking to a healthy diet takes strenuous effort and self control. Just when we think we have mastered the art of preparing healthy meals, a busy schedule may throw us off course, prompting the need to eat out. Most healthy eaters stray from fast food restaurants to ward off high-calorie meals and fatty food, but what you may not know is that you could be packing on more pounds by dining at a sit-down restaurant.

A recent study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating at sit-down restaurants can lead to nearly as much saturated fat intake as eating at a fast food restaurant. Leisurely eating a full-service meal can also add more sodium into your diet and more calories versus taking it to go.

Image by Walter Lim via Flickr
Image by Walter Lim via Flickr

The study, led by Ruopeng An, an assistant professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, polled approximately 18,000 adults through surveys and in-person interviews to determine the type of food they ate within the past 24 hours as well as the type of restaurant they dined at for their meals. The study participants were asked to measure their food intake at both fast food and sit-down restaurants using measuring spoons and cups.

The researchers then calculated the amount of sugar, sodium, saturated fat and fat consumed by the subjects from both sit-down and fast food restaurants. An said the researchers were surprised to learn that a full-service restaurant meal added approximately 412 milligrams to the recommended daily sodium intake whereas fast food meals added 300 milligrams of sodium.

The study does not necessarily indicate that dining out should be restricted to fast food restaurants. An and his research team discovered that people who order carryout from a sit-down, full-service restaurant consumer fewer calories when they eat on the go or at home than when they sit down at a restaurant to dine. The findings are likely related to the nature of restaurant dining, concludes An. “Eating out is often viewed as a social gathering, so people spend more time and eat more leisurely, which can lead to more food intake,” he told CBS News.

Image by Fabio Bruna via Flickr
Image by Fabio Bruna via Flickr

While eating at sit-down restaurants can lead to higher consumption of cholesterol and sodium, people do tend to consume more healthy nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, potassium, and certain vitamins. Portion control is the determining factor in whether dining out is healthy. On average, the study found that Americans consume approximately 200 more calories when they dine out at both fast food and full-service restaurants versus eating at home.

The study’s results did not surprise Lori Rosenthal, a registered dietitian specializing in weight management at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. We often have more self-control when preparing our own meals, said Rosenthal. “When we prepare our own meals, we know exactly what we are eating,” she said. “We are in control. When dining out, we are leaving the ingredients to the chef.”

Rosenthal recommends planning ahead and preparing meals at home when possible to avoid larger portions and foods high in sodium and saturated fat that are typical of both sit-down and fast food restaurants. It does require a commitment to eat healthy, she said.

The next time you take the opportunity to dine out, you don’t have to opt for the fast food drive-thru versus sitting down at a full-service restaurant. The key is to choose your foods carefully, control your portions and opt for fresh vegetables and fruits that have not been soaked in butter or sugar. It is also important to research the calories and fat contents of foods at your favorite restaurants.

Check out this list of the worst fast food restaurants for kids.

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