Non-chain restaurants are often seen as the healthier choice, even though -- or perhaps because -- the number of calories in their meals is a mystery. But a new study finds that these meals are generally just as calorie-rich as similar meals at chain restaurants.
Researchers determined the calorie content of the most popular dinners at independent eateries around Boston, San Francisco and Little Rock, Arkansas. In each area, they included about a dozen restaurants across a range of cuisines, from American burger joints to Italian trattorias and Greek cafes.
The researchers determined the average dinner at a non-chain restaurant had about 1,200 calories, which they found was similar to comparable dinners at chain restaurants and around half of the daily energy requirement for adults. Women are recommended to consume about 2,000 calories a day to maintain their weight, whereas men can reach about 2,500 calories a day.
"Many nutritionists say fast food is making us obese, but that's just because they tell us their calories. That's just the tip of the iceberg. Non-chain restaurants are just as bad as chain restaurants," said Susan B. Roberts, director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. Roberts led the research, which was published Wednesday in the Journal of Nutrition and Dietetics.
"I think chain restaurants are better personally because you can make informed choices," she said.
Roberts and her colleagues found a lot of variability between different types of cuisines. American, Italian, Chinese and Indian meals had the most calories on average, whereas Greek, Vietnamese and Mexican tended to have the fewest.
Across the range of cuisines, 92% of the dinners the researchers tested contained more than 570 calories, which they consider the appropriate number of calories for the average adult woman to consume at lunch and dinner. "All of the popular choices have grossly excessive numbers of calories," Roberts said.
One of the unexpected findings for Roberts was that dishes she has recommended to her clients, such as grilled chicken tikka at Indian restaurants, were much higher in calories at some restaurants. "They must be soaking the chicken in oil or yogurt because it has 200 or 300 more calories between restaurants," she said. It would be hard for consumers to notice the difference, she added.
The findings were surprising in general, said Marian Jarlenski, assistant professor of health policy and management at the University of Pittsburgh, who was not involved in the study. "The intuitive hypothesis is that non-chains would be healthier. This may be an American thing; we think local is better, and better in this case might be healthier," she said.
Jarlenski was particularly struck by the finding that meals with the smallest portion sizes were not necessarily low in calories. "My personal strategy is to eat whatever I want as long as it's (a small portion), but I may be getting just as many calories if I'm ordering something that has a lot of calorie-dense ingredients," she said.
What consumers can do
The number of calories served at a restaurant is an important issue because Americans eat out so much. One estimate is that the average American adult eats meals or snacks at restaurants about six times a week
. "The weight of the evidence suggests that restaurant eating is a contributor to obesity in the United States," Jarlenski said.