Do you love to dine out with family and friends? If so, there's a good chance you are ruining your health.
About 50% of the meals Americans order in a typical full-service restaurant -- and 70% of dishes in fast-food restaurants – during 2015 and 2016 were of poor nutritional quality, according to a study recently published in the Journal of Nutrition.
Perhaps even more disturbing, healthful alternatives are just about impossible to find at many restaurants. Less than 0.1% of all restaurant meals consumed during the study period were of "ideal quality,” researchers say.
In reaching those conclusions, researchers at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University looked at the dietary selections of more than 35,000 U.S. adults recorded between 2003 and 2016 in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
The researchers are urging restaurants to improve the nutritional quality of their offerings. And the stakes are high: Restaurant meals account for about 1 out of every 5 calories the average American consumes.
Improving the quality of your restaurant choices
Can't imagine giving up meals at your favorite restaurants? You can at least take steps to minimize the potential damage of gobbling down substandard foods.
To improve meal selection, take a proactive approach, says Rachel Begun, a registered dietitian nutritionist and culinary nutritionist in Los Angeles.
"The biggest mistake we make when dining out is not asking questions," she says.
Begun recommends asking three questions every time you order a meal:
- What is the full list of ingredients?
- How is the dish prepared?
- How big is the portion?
Begun says it is not a lack of willpower that is causing people to eat so unhealthfully.
"It's because we are unaware of how our food is being prepared," she says. "We have the power to ask questions to become better informed."
Begun says such questions may reveal important facts – such as that the sugary smoothie you covet is really 16 ounces when 8 ounces will satisfy you, or that those crispy Brussels sprouts are actually deep-fried instead of roasted.
Taking a proactive approach
Asking questions can help you better understand the nutritional quality -- or lack thereof -- of any food you want to order.
If you are disappointed in the answers you get about what's going into the meal, speak up.
"Don’t be afraid to make modifications," Begun says. "If that seemingly healthful salad seems like it has more ingredients than necessary, ask for one or two ingredients to be removed.”
Or, if you don’t think you need extra helpings of savory sauce to enjoy a meal, “ask for it on the side," Begun says.
Thinking outside the box a bit also can help you make better choices.
"Portion sizes at restaurants are almost always bigger than necessary," Begun says. "Appetizers are often big enough to act as an entree, so don't hesitate to order as such."
Eating more healthfully at fast-food restaurants
Eating healthfully at fast-food restaurants can be especially challenging. Begun encourages you to look hard for better options.
"We are starting to see more fast-food concepts focusing on healthier fare," she says. "If these options are available to you, get out of your comfort zone and try these restaurants."
If the typical fast-food choices are all that is available, Begun says you should go online before heading out to the restaurant to review menu and nutrition information.
"Being familiar with the ingredients, preparations and portion sizes of fast-food meals allows you to make modifications for a healthier meal when ordering on the spot," she says.