Dining out's effects on health

Originally Published: March 29, 2002 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: September 7, 2007
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Hey Alice,

Most of my friends and I often eat out for many of our meals. What are the effects of this trend on health?

— Out to lunch bunch

Dear Out to lunch bunch,

It's a great idea to think about your health when dining out! While restaurants and delis are convenient for lunch and provide a welcome opportunity to socialize, the results of eating out may be less than favorable for your health. Why is that? A couple reasons; (1) Much food eaten away from home is high in fat and calories, and (2) people tend to overindulge when they dine out, eating healthier when they are at home. Regardless of where you are eating, any healthy diet should include plenty of different fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. However, even healthier foods such as these may be more calorie-rich at restaurants; studies show restaurant food typically is more calorie dense — meaning more calories per bite — than similar food prepared at home.

In the United States, portion sizes have gone through the roof. Food is not particularly expensive for most restaurants, so they serve us what we have come to expect — LOTS OF IT! People tend to eat more when served larger portions.

It may be hard to believe that in the 1950s, Coca-Cola was packaged in 6.5-ounce bottles. Twelve-ounce cans and 20 oz bottles were next in the upsizing timeline, and now it's possible to get a super-sized soft drink at a fast food restaurant containing 42 oz or more. That's more than one liter! The original bottle of Coke was 81 calories. The super-sized beverage is over 300 calories (it would be more, but you get lots of ice included).

If you go to a fast food restaurant, a regular hamburger weighs in at almost four ounces and contains 250 calories. That's fine, but not many people just eat a plain burger. Compare it with a Big Mac at 7-½ ounces and 540 calories. Super size your fries and end up with 320 calories more than a small order. So, a well-known hamburger, giant fries, and a big beverage total 1410 calories — about two-thirds of a day's worth of calories for an average sized woman.

Fast food isn't the only high-calorie culprit. If you visit your local deli or pizza parlor you'll likely notice the size of sandwiches and pizzas are huge. On top of that, some pizzas come with stuffed crusts, adding an extra 120 calories per slice. And as for the heroes and hoagies, many delis make sandwiches with six ounces of meat or more. At home, most people would use three or four ounces.

Breakfast on the run adds up like you would not believe! The average bagel in New York City is anywhere from four to six ounces (translate: this equals 4 to 6 slices of white bread). Add a "shmear" of cream cheese and grab a carton of juice, and you just had a breakfast of 750 - 900 calories. Most people don't even count this as "eating out."

You may also want to consider the sodium and other food additives that are likely in some of your restaurant favorites. Salt certainly brings out the flavor in a meal, but in excess may also bring out undesirable health problems. Many restaurants offer low-sodium dishes. Asking for sauces and dressings on the side can help you to manage your salt, as well as calorie, intake.

In these examples, some of the foods (e.g., cheese, juice) have nutrients your body needs, but that is not always the case. Usually, extra calories eaten away from home are lower in fiber, calcium, and other important nutrients than foods eaten at home.

So, what is a busy person (or a person who just enjoys eating out) to do? Useful resources for healthy eating and living can be found at MyPyramid.gov. Additionally, here are some practical tips if restaurants are part of your daily regimen:

  • Look for items that are baked, broiled, steamed, roasted, or grilled, without sauces — ask for sauces or dressings on the side.
  • Try vegetable- or broth-based sauces (rather than cream-based) with meats, pasta, rice, etc.
  • Focus on packing fruits, veggies and whole grains into your meal wherever possible
  • Buy smaller portions when you have the choice — even if the larger sizes don't cost much more. Super sizing only benefits your wealth, not your health. 
  • Save money by sharing a meal with a friend.
  • If you are at a sit-down restaurant, forgo the appetizer, or order a salad or a non-creamy soup.
  • Ask for the bread or chip basket to be removed after you've had a few.
  • Think about getting an appetizer or soup as a main dish.
  • Order a side of steamed or roasted veggies.
  • If you are served a large portion, plan on bringing half of the food home to have for another meal.
  • If dessert is a must, pick fruit, sorbet, or keep some dark chocolate handy and have a small portion after your meal.
  • Eat regular meals and snacks, so you are less likely to overeat when you reach your favorite diner, deli or café.

It may be wise to view your restaurant dining as a convenience. That is, you are paying not to have to shop for food, cook, and clean up; however when it comes to eating a balanced diet restaurants aren't going to do the work for you. The mantra 'everything in moderation' is key when dining out. Bon appetit!