Summer 2016

Restaurant Pitfall

Today’s Special: A whopping number of calories

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Illustration: Erin Farley

It’s not just greasy fast-food meals from the big chains that are caloric culprits. In a new study, almost all of the 364 restaurant meals researchers analyzed from across the country contained more calories than one person needs in a single meal. And some of the meals even overshot the calories a person needs in a whole day.

The study examined meals served at 123 restaurants in Boston, San Francisco and Little Rock, Arkansas, between 2011 and 2014. Even without extras like drinks, appetizers and desserts, the meals exceeded a typical woman’s energy needs (570 calories for lunch or dinner was the benchmark) 92 percent of the time.

The urge to keep eating what’s in front of you is part of a natural Pavlovian response.

The worst offenders by cuisine were American, Chinese and Italian restaurants, which had mean counts of 1,495 calories per meal.

But wait, you say. Can’t people just stop eating when they are full? It’s not so simple, says the study’s first author, Susan B. Roberts, director of the Energy Metabolism Lab at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts. She says the urge to keep eating what’s in front of you is part of a natural Pavlovian response.

“All we have to do is see and smell food, and our sympathetic nervous system revs up, insulin secretion drops blood glucose and our stomach relaxes—the goal of these physiological changes being to prepare us to eat all the food within reach,” said Roberts, who is also a professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts.

Study author William Masters, a professor at the Friedman School, points out that standard meals are sized for the hungriest customers, so people who need fewer calories are faced with a dilemma. The average adult woman doesn’t need more than 2,000 calories a day, while men average 2,500.

“There is a gender dimension here that is really important,” Masters said. “Women, when dining out, typically have to be more vigilant.”

Public health officials have pinned their hopes on new legislation that requires restaurants with 20 or more locations to disclose nutrition information so their customers can make healthy choices. The authors of the study write that menu labeling may help, but aside from the fact that the new law doesn’t apply to about half the restaurants out there, it won’t address “the basic problem that human neurobiology, rather than lack of willpower, is a primary drive of overeating” when it comes to restaurant meals.

Masters said a good option would be if customers could order partial portions at partial prices, saying they would “be able to eat out more often without weight gain.”

The study appeared in the Journal of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

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