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Whether it’s because we don’t like to cook, think cooking is too hard or time consuming, or we get bored making the same meals every week, most Americans love to eat out with their families. Although there are many restaurants who offer salads, grilled fare and healthy options, a new study finds most restaurant food falls short when it comes to nutrition.

According to the study out of Tufts University, which was published last week in the Journal of Nutrition, restaurant meals make up 21 percent of an adult’s calories (they didn’t study kids) but in most cases, the meals are of poor nutritional quality.

Fifty percent of meals Americans eat are at full-service restaurants (those that have wait staff) and 70 parent of meals are at fast food restaurants, including pizza joints and the “fast-casual”category which includes places like Panera Bread, Chipotle and Au Bon Pain.

The remainder of the restaurant meals were deemed of “intermediate” nutritional quality and less than 0.1 percent of all meals were considered “ideal” quality.

“Our findings show dining out is a recipe for unhealthy eating most of the time,” Dariush Mozaffarian, senior author of the study said in this press release.

AMERICANS ARE FASCINATED WITH COOKING, BUT ENJOY EATING OUT TOO 

Between tons of cooking shows, Tasty videos, an increase in cookbook sales in recent years, and a fascination with food blogs, Americans seem to love cooking, but the data shows we’re actually eating out more than ever before.

In fact, according to a recent report by the U.S. Census Bureau, sales at eating and drinking establishments were up 4 percent in 2019, versus grocery sales which were up 3 percent.

What’s more, the National Restaurant Association estimated that industry sales in 2019 would reach an all-time high of $863 billion.

WHAT ELSE DID THE STUDY ON RESTUARANT FOOD FIND?

The study also found some interesting data on the types of foods we eat when we’re dining out.

  • Meals at full-service restaurants account for 9 percent of the total calories consumed.
  • Meals at fast-food places account for 12 percent of the total calories consumed.
  • The consumption of fast-food breakfast was nearly 8 percent in 2016, up from 4 percent in 2003.

Related: 11 Healthy Breakfast Ideas for Kids

For the study, researchers analyzed the meals of more than 35,000 U.S. adults between 2003 and 2016 using the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). They determined the nutritional quality by evaluating foods and nutrients in the meals based on the American Heart Association 2020 diet score, which includes primary and secondary scores.

The primary score looks at the consumption fruits and vegetables, fish and shellfish, whole grains, sodium, and sugar-sweetened beverages. The secondary score looks at the intake of nuts, seeds and legumes, processed meat, and saturated fat.

There were some limitations with the study however. For example, the authors noted that people may overreport or underreport healthy or unhealthy foods they consumed.

UNHEALTHY RESTAURANT FOOD IS MAKING US SICK

Eating out may be quicker, easier, and more delicious, but there’s no question that all that restaurant food is affecting our health and our children’s health.

Not only are we facing a childhood obesity epidemic and more kids than ever are being diagnosed with type-2 diabetes, but studies show our kids will have a shorter life expectancy than older generations.

What’s more, whether kids are overweight or not, all kids are at risk.

In fact, according to a May 2012 study in the journal Pediatrics, 37 percent of kids who have a normal weight have one or more cardiovascular risk factors like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high blood sugar.

This study out of Tufts University is important therefore, because it highlights the need for significant change in the choices we make as well as for stakeholders.

“Our food is the number one cause of poor health in the country, representing a tremendous opportunity to reduce diet-related illness and associated healthcare spending,” Mozaffarian said. “At restaurants, two forces are at play: what’s available on the menu, and what Americans are actually selecting. Efforts from the restaurant industry, consumers, advocacy groups, and governments should focus on both these areas.”

HOW TO ORDER HEALTHY RESTAURANT FOOD

Years ago, most people ate out occasionally or for a special reason like a birthday or graduation, but today, it’s much more a part of our everyday lifestyle.

While I don’t think it’s totally realistic to give up eating out all together—and besides, sharing family meals together has benefits too— there are ways to eat healthy when you’re dining out.

Re-think the kids menu

Most kids’ restaurant meals are high in calories, sodium, sugar, and saturated fat and the portion sizes are many times, too large—even those on the kids’ menu.

In fact, according to a 2013 report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, 97 percent of kids’ meals at 34 top chain restaurants failed to meet expert nutrition standards.

Some kids’ menus do however, offer green salads, or fruit as side for example, so you’ll have to size up each meal.

Or consider ordering off the adult menu instead. For example, you can order a green side salad and a healthy appetizer or order a main dish and let your kids share it.

Bypass the appetizers (or make a healthier choice)

Since most restaurant meals are so large, think again about ordering appetizers, which can have more calories, sugar, sodium, and saturated fat than some of the main dishes.

If everyone’s super-hungry and appetizers are a must however, order a vegetable-based soup or a green salad, for example.

Get a to-go container with your meal

When I was trying to lose weight years ago, I found a great trick to avoid overeating when I was dining out.

Instead of asking for a to-go container at the end of your meal, ask your server to bring it with your meal and put two-thirds or half of the meal aside.

Choose whole grains

Instead of white rice and white pasta, choose dishes that have whole grains like brown rice, whole wheat pasta, and quinoa or ask for the kitchen to make a substitution.

Drink water

Sugar-sweetened drinks can add unnecessary calories to your kids’ meals, so order water instead of chocolate milk, juice, soda and lemonade, for example.

Think about the cooking method

Choose grilled or baked entrees instead of fried foods.

Ask for substitutions

The chef may not be keen on it, but if you want to eat healthy when you’re dining out, ask for substitutions.

For example, swap French fries for vegetables, avocado for mayonnaise, and olive oil and balsamic vinegar instead of other salad dressings.

Finally, try to eat out less.

Come up with a plan that’s realistic for your family to eat out less frequently and eat more home-cooked meals:

  • Make a double batch of a meal, and stock one in the freezer.
  • Rely on easy, healthy dinner ideas and keep healthy options on hand like salad, hard-boiled eggs or beans for a quick and easy meal.

Author Details
Julie Revelant teaches parents how to raise children who are healthy, adventurous eaters. Through blog posts and videos, her goal is to shift the conversation from short-term, problem picky eating to lifelong, healthy eating and healthy futures. As a health journalist, Julie\'s has written for FoxNews.com, FIRST for Women and Woman\'s World magazines, WhatToExpect.com, RD.com, TheBump.com, Care.com and Babble.com.

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