Fast food may have a reputation for being a diet disaster but as two studies published in today's JAMA Internal Medicine found, sitting down to a meal at a restaurant does even more damage to your waistline and overall health.
When University of Toronto researchers analyzed the nutritional information of food ordered at 19 sit-down restaurant chains, they discovered the average meal contained a whopping 1,128 calories -- 56 percent of the average daily 2,000-calorie intake recommended by the Food and Drug Administration for a healthy adult.
As the researchers noted, previous research found the average fast food meal delivers just 881 calories.
Belt-busting calorie counts weren't just found in the restaurant's dinnertime portions either. A typical lunch packed more than 1,000 calories on average. At 1,226 calories on average, breakfast meals totaled even higher.
"This was a little surprising, but the volume of food served in many breakfast options is comparable to those served at dinnertime," said Mary Scourboutakos, one of the study's authors.
The calorie count was only one worrisome aspect of the meals Scourboutakos and her colleagues analyzed, however, she said.
"On average, they contained 151 percent of recommended daily salt intake, 89 percent of daily fat, and 60 percent of daily cholesterol," she said.
The Canadian study reviewed 685 meals from popular restaurant chains that post nutritional information publically.
However, dining at smaller, independent eateries appears to be even more disastrous to weight control efforts, according to a second JAMA Internal Medicine study performed by researchers at Tufts University in Boston.
In this study, researchers analyzed the calorie and nutritional content of more than 40 of the most frequently purchased dishes from the nine most common food categories purchased at independent and small chain eateries. All the establishments evaluated had less than 20 locations and won't be required to post nutritional information when new health care laws go into effect later this year.
Using a method known as bomb calorimetry to measure the heat given off in the form of calories when food is burned up, the researchers calculated that the average lunch or dinner entree with sides contained 1,327 calories -- 17 percent more than similar menu items offered at larger chains.
Tufts investigator Lorien Urban said the difference between a meal ordered at an independent restaurant versus one ordered at a larger chain can be upwards of 600 calories. More than 90 percent of the small chain restaurant meals analyzed in the study dispensed more than a third of daily calorie requirements. Nearly 10 percent contained more than a day's worth of calories. And a few packed nearly two day's worth of calories onto the plate.
As Urban pointed out, the totals didn't include beverages, appetizers or desserts.
"Considering that more than half the restaurants in the U.S. are independent or small chain and won't be covered by labeling requirements in the future, this is something consumers need to pay attention to," she said. "It's also important because nearly 40 percent of meals are now eaten outside the home."
Both the Canadian and Tufts researchers singled out "rack of ribs" as one of the worst nutritional offenders. Both found that a rib dinner with all the trimming carried between 1850 and 3500 calories.
"This also highlights the variability of calorie counts for similar meals," Urban said.
David Levitsky, a professor of nutrition and psychology at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., said preparing your own meals at home slashes calorie consumption by 20 percent to 35 percent, simply because there is a tendency to serve yourself smaller portion sizes than are put before you when eating out.
"The amount of food and calories you consume per dollar is one of the major reasons you go back to that place," he said. "Restaurants know they are competing with other restaurants based on value, so they tend to be less concerned with your health and more concerned that you come back."
When faced with larger portion sizes, Levitsky said you almost always eat more because your brain is programmed to eat what's in front of you. It's a primal behavior based on bygone days when most humans weren't sure when they'd be eating again.
If eating at home isn't an option, Levitsky recommended ordering half portions, splitting an entree or asking the server to doggie bag half of your meal before it hits your plate.
Scourboutakos said it's also wise to skimp on sauces, dressings and extras and to surf the web for calorie counts when they are available before heading out to eat.