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Study Finds Heart-Healthy Meals Scarce In Restaurants

July 13, 2021

Tufts University researchers wanted to know where Americans were getting a majority of their calories from. So, they turned to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) and studied the food choices of more than 35,000 adults in the United States from 2003-2016.  

The researchers looked at who dined at full-service (those with wait staff) or fast-food restaurants, which included pizza shops and what has become known as fast-casual. The researchers assessed nutritional quality by evaluating specific foods and nutrients in the meals, based on the American Heart Association 2020 diet score.

At fast-food restaurants, 70% of the meals Americans consumed were of poor dietary quality in 2015-2016, down from 75% in 2003-2004. At full-service restaurants, about 50% were of poor nutritional quality, an amount that remained stable over the study period. The remaining meals were labeled “intermediate nutritional quality.”

How Much We’re Dining Out

The researchers also discovered just how much Americans relied on restaurants for their meals.

They found that restaurant meals accounted for 21% of Americans' total caloric intake. The results also showed that:

  • Full-service restaurant meals represented 9% of total calories consumed.
  • Fast-food meals represented 12% of total calories consumed.
  • Fast-food breakfasts increased from just over 4% to nearly 8% of all breakfasts eaten in America.

The findings are published in The Journal of Nutrition. 

Making Healthier Choices

So, what can you do to make healthier choices when dining out? Moderation and informed decisions are the keys to maintaining a healthy diet for heart health, especially when dining out. So here are some tips gleaned from the Mayo Clinic’s DASH Diet pages:

  • Cut down on fats by selecting foods made using healthier cooking styles like steaming, grilling, broiling, baking, roasting, poaching or stir-frying.
  • Meats and vegetables sautéed or stir-fried in a small amount of oil, broth or water are usually lower in fat.
  • Avoid entrees that are fried, fricasseed or creamed, and those sautéed or stir-fried in heavy oil (if you can help it).
  • Steer clear of breasted, stuffed, buttered, breaded or basted entrees, as well as gravies. If the name of an entree contains the term "au gratin," "a la king," "Alfredo" or "parmigiana," choose something else. Always ask for the sauce to be served on the side.
  • Choose foods that are lower in sodium by choosing fresh fruits and vegetables, limiting condiments and avoiding anything that may be high in salt, such as anything pickled, cured, smoked, or cooked with soy sauce or broth.

Now, let’s talk about side dishes.

Side Dishes

For side dishes, choose vegetables and fruit. Baked potatoes, boiled new potatoes and rice also may be good options. Skip the french fries, potato chips and onion rings, as well as vegetables slathered in cheese or cream sauces.

Top your potatoes with salsa instead of butter or sour cream. Most restaurants will substitute a healthier side dish if you ask.

Avoid oversized servings by splitting it in half before you eat and either sharing it or boxing it up for later. Or you can order lunch or appetizer portions.

Be aware that salads aren't necessarily as healthy as they may sound. Many are thick with add-ons, such as cheese and dressing, that significantly increase salt and fat content.

If you can't resist dessert, choose fresh fruit, gelatin, sorbet, sherbet, fruit ice, meringues or plain cake with fruit puree.

Eating nutritionally doesn’t have to be difficult. With these easy tips and simple swaps, you can create a healthy eating pattern that not only meets recommended dietary guidelines but also make your body feel great.

fast food nutrition facts