Restaurant Meals ‘Alarmingly High’ in Fat, Study Finds

The average meal at a chain restaurant contains more than half the calories, 1.5 times as much sodium and almost all the fat that people are recommended to consume in an entire day, researchers in Canada found.

Scientists at the University of Toronto analyzed nutritional information for 685 meals and 156 desserts reported by 26 sit-down restaurant chains. On average, the meals contained 1,128 calories, or 56 percent of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s 2,000 calorie-a-day recommendation.

The meals contained 151 percent of the FDA’s recommended limit for sodium, 89 percent of the limit for fat and 60 percent of the limit for cholesterol, the researchers reported today in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

“Calories, fat, saturated fat and sodium levels are alarmingly high in breakfast, lunch and dinner meals” at chain restaurants, the researchers said. “Addressing the nutritional profile of restaurant meals should be a major public health policy.”

The researchers didn’t name any of the restaurant chains.

The number of U.S. adults who are obese has doubled since 1980 to more than 78 million, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The condition raises the risk of heart disease and diabetes, among other health issues, and costs the U.S. economy an estimated $147 billion a year in medical expenses and lost productivity, the Atlanta-based agency has said.

Obama Effort

Childhood obesity rates have tripled in the last 30 years, spurring the Obama administration, led by first lady Michelle Obama, to urge food companies to take voluntary steps to improve the nutritional value of their products. Darden Restaurants Inc. pledged to reduce total calories and sodium in its food by 20 percent over 10 years.

In a separate study published in the same journal, researchers from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, George Washington University and Northwestern University found that reductions of sodium levels in processed and restaurant foods since 2005 have been “inconsistent and slow,” despite public commitments by food companies.

The researchers examined sodium content in processed foods bought at Giant Food Inc., Safeway Inc. and Whole Foods Market Inc. in 2005, 2008 and 2011. They also looked at foods available at 16 U.S. fast-food restaurants, including McDonald’s Corp. and stores owned by Yum! Brands Inc.

Sodium Levels

They found that sodium levels in the processed grocery foods had decreased about 3.5 percent on average since 2005, while the fast-food restaurants had increased their sodium content by about 2.4 percent on average.

“Changes in sodium levels by the food processing and restaurant industries have been minimal,” the study says, arguing that “prompt, strong regulatory action to lower levels of sodium in processed and restaurant foods is necessary.”

The National Restaurant Association, a trade group in Washington, said that the study didn’t take into account lower-sodium offerings developed by restaurants since 2005 and looked at a relatively small number of products.

“Restaurants have made significant progress in developing lower sodium menu options,” Joy Dubost, the director of nutrition at the association, said in a statement. “On the whole, our members have evaluated their product lines to determine the areas in which sodium can be reduced, reformulated existing menu items when feasible, and considered sodium levels as part of new product development.”

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