Non-Chain Restaurants Also Serve Supersized, High-Calorie Meals

Chain and fast-food restaurants aren't the only eating establishments guilty of serving oversize meals. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon

Public health officials and experts in diet and nutrition have made plenty of fuss about the high-caloric content of meals served at chain restaurants. However, it turns out that eating at independent dining establishments often isn't much better when it comes to keeping within the recommended dietary allowances for fat and calories.

In a new study published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, researchers at Tufts University randomly sampled 364 meals from a range of privately owned and franchise restaurants in Boston, San Francisco and Little Rock, Arkansas, and found that 92 percent had the equivalent calorie count of over two-thirds the overall recommended daily intake. (The analysis excluded the caloric content of accompanying beverages, appetizers and desserts.)

Portion size was a main factor behind the high-calorie content of the meals, proving that it's not just fast-food places that are supersizing.

"This study extends previous work and indicates that restaurants in general, rather than specific types of restaurants, can facilitate obesity by exposing patrons to portion sizes that induce overeating through established biological mechanisms that are largely outside conscious control," the researchers wrote in the study.

The study, partially supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, looked at meals from a variety of cuisines, including American, Chinese, Greek, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Thai and Vietnamese food. Overall, the researchers found that meals from American, Chinese and Italian restaurants had the highest caloric content, averaging 1,495 calories. Research shows that the average adult woman living in the U.S. should not exceed a daily intake of more than 2,000 calories, while adult men in the U.S. shouldn't eat more than 2,500 calories per day. These estimates are for people who are at least moderately active, and recommended daily allowance should be lower for those who are sedentary.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration labeling requirements around portion size apply only to restaurant franchises with 20 or more outlets; the researchers said the policy covers only approximately 50 percent of restaurants in the U.S.

"In theory, eating out does not need to lead to overeating if consumers are able to practice restraint, but large portions typical of many restaurants appear to consistently override restraint and result in overeating," the researchers wrote.

Unfortunately, our inclination to stuff our faces with a portion of spaghetti that could easily feed a family of four is partially biological. According to the researchers, exposure to huge portions "causes greater activation of the neurologic reward system and the autonomic nervous system than small portions." This is because that plate is sitting under your eyes, nose and mouth for a lot longer, which triggers a persistent desire for food.