- Nearly 70% of fast food and over half of restaurant meals in the United States are of sub-optimal nutritional quality, revealing a concerning diet trend among Americans who frequently dine out.
- Fast-food meals’ nutritional quality was found to differ across racial and educational demographics, with no significant improvement in quality for meals consumed by black Americans over the study’s duration.
- A key factor contributing to these adverse dietary patterns is the common perception that dining out is a cheat day, leading even nutrition-conscious individuals to neglect the nutritional quality of their meals.
- The study highlights the urgent need for restaurants to offer healthier food choices and for consumers to be more selective and informed in their dining decisions.
Meal consumption outside home, be it a quick-service fast food or a full-service restaurant, has been widely embraced due to its convenience. However, the nutritional value of most of these meals is questionable, reveals recent research.
The Nutritional Quality of Restaurant Meals
This comprehensive research reports that nearly 70% of the fast food and over half of the restaurant meals consumed in the United States are of sub-optimal nutritional quality. The study examined restaurant meals between 2003 and 2016. Interestingly, less than 0.1% of these meals were considered nutritionally ideal.
A worrying fact unfolded through this study was that nearly a third of American adults eat at full-service restaurants and nearly half at fast-food establishments daily, revealing the pervasive low nutritional quality of meals most Americans consume.
Eating Habits Rule Health Status
Modern lifestyles have seen a shift from home-prepared meals to dining out. With one in every five calories that the average American consumes coming from restaurants, the need for nutritional vigilance is higher than ever.
Previous studies have linked restaurant meals with poor health outcomes like type 2 diabetes. But there has been little investigation on the nutritional quality of individual meals offered by restaurants. This latest study fills that gap, providing an in-depth assessment of the dietary information from over 35,000 American adults through a 24-hour period.
Unequal Nutritional Quality across Demographics
The study also revealed some disparities in the nutritional quality of fast-food meals across racial and educational backgrounds. Nutritionally, fast-food consumed by whites and Mexican-Americans improved over the course of the study, seeing no similar improvement in meals consumed by black Americans.
When considered educationally, fast-food diet quality for consumers with college degrees improved, but those without a high school degree still consumed mostly poor-quality fast food.
Improving the Quality of Meals
“A disturbing trend is restaurants enticing lower-income and marginalized communities with unhealthy options, escalating their poor dietary cycle. Breaking this cycle requires offering healthier food choices – whole grains, nuts, legumes, fish, vegetables, fruits and cutting down on salt,” says Dariush Mozaffarian, senior study author.
Mozaffarian suggested that people could enhance the nutritional value of restaurant meals by opting for seltzer or unsweetened tea instead of sodas, reducing the intake of processed meats and, most importantly, choosing healthier options from the menu.
Audrey Koltun, a dietician, suggests, “There are healthier options available in many restaurants. Recently, there have been trends of focusing on healthier kids meals, whole grains and vegetarian options. But dining outside often includes the temptation to treat oneself with less healthy options.”
Even individuals who are very nutrition conscious while eating home-cooked meals sometimes view dining out as a cheat day and neglect the nutritional aspect of their outside meals.
Koltun notes that cost significantly influences food choices. Lower-priced menus at many fast-food outlets often contain items lower in quality and nutritional value.
Conclusively, the study emphasizes the importance of making more informed and health-conscious decisions when dining out. This calls for the increased responsibility of restaurants in offering healthier alternatives and patrons in choosing them.
For More Information
For more information on eating healthy at restaurants, visit the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.