Not Just McDonald’s: Mom-and-Pop Restaurants Can Serve Calorie Bombs Too

Chain restaurants catch plenty of flak for contributing to obesity, but your local establishment probably isn’t much healthier.
L' Osteria Ristorante, an Italian restaurant in the North End neighborhood of Boston. (Photo: Flickr)
Jan 20, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

One need look no further than the sales woes at McDonald’s to see that some obesity-plagued Americans have gotten the message that eating fast food might not be the healthiest option. Perhaps they know to steer clear of fast-casual and chain restaurants too. After all, a single carnitas burrito from Chipotle has 945 calories, and a plate of Louisiana Chicken Pasta from The Cheesecake Factory contains 2,370 calories.

But although some folks might believe their local mom-and-pop restaurant is healthier than a chain, a study published on Wednesday in the Journal of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests otherwise.

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For the study, a team of researchers from Tufts University analyzed the caloric content of nearly 400 restaurant meals from both chains and local restaurants in Boston, San Francisco, and Little Rock, Arkansas, between 2011 and 2014. They found that 30 percent of the main-course meals—not including beverages, appetizers, or desserts—exceeded the caloric requirements for an entire day.

An astounding 92 percent of the main courses served exceeded the recommended calorie requirements for a single meal. The worst calorie-count offenders were American—yes, your local burger joint—Chinese, and Italian restaurants. Those had an average of 1,495 calories per meal. That nearly tops the USDA recommendation that the average woman consume about 2,000 calories per day, and it’s about 60 percent of the 2,500 calories per day recommended for the average man.

“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,” Susan Roberts, director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, who led the research, told CNN.

Nearly 70 percent of Americans are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even if those folks make an effort to eat healthier to avoid chronic conditions such as diabetes, they are being undermined by restaurants, according to the researchers.

“Oversize servings lead a lot of dieters to avoid most restaurants entirely, or stick to items like salads that they know are served in reasonable portions,” study coauthor William Masters, a professor of food economics at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts, said in a statement. “Standard meals are sized for the hungriest customers, so most people need superhuman self-control to avoid overeating.”

By the end of 2016, chain restaurants across the country will be required to post nutritional information that includes calorie counts. But independent restaurants aren’t required to share how many calories, grams of fat, or grams of sodium are in a portion of eggplant Parmesan or lo mein. Instead of requiring independent restaurants to do that too, Roberts suggested that consumers should be able to order a half or one-third portion of a meal.

“Restaurants will say, ‘We can’t possibly do that,’ but if everyone were required [by law] to do that, the playing field [would be] level,” said Roberts. “I would eat out every night of the week if I could do that.”