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Restaurants leave few choices for the calorie conscious, studies reveal

If you're looking to count calories or cut fat and salt from your diet, you're probably not going to want to eat out at a restaurant, two new studies published May 13 in JAMA Internal Medicine suggest.

The first study looked at independent and small chain restaurants. It revealed that a single meal would contain as much as 66 percent of an adult's estimated daily caloric intake. Researchers discovered that one restaurant meal contained two to three times more calories than an adult needs eacn meal.

"On average, the meals studied contained 1,327 calories, which significantly exceeds the estimated energy needs of an individual adult at a single meal," senior and corresponding author Susan B. Roberts, director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts University in Boston, said in a press release. "Meals from all restaurant types provided substantially more energy than is needed for weight maintenance."

The team of researchers looked at 157 full meals including side dishes from 33 randomly selected eating establishments in Boston between June and August 2011. All the restaurants had an online menu, but they did not provide calorie information. The meals were the most popular selections based on customer rankings and internet searches for popular food, and were selected out of the nine most common restaurant types: Mexican, American, Chinese, Italian, Japanese, Thai, Indian, Greek and Vietnamese.

They focused on independent and small chain restaurants because they make up 50 percent of the nation's restaurants, but would not be required to follow new federal guidelines that require establishments to post their caloric content information.

About 73 percent of the food had more than half of the FDA's daily energy recommendation of 2,000 calories. Twelve meals had more than the entire daily intake. Italian (1,755 calories), American (1,494 calories) and Chinese (1,474 calories) foods had the highest average calorie levels, while Vietnamese (922 calories) and Japanese (1,027) contained the lowest calories on average.

Independent and small-chain restaurants also had 6 percent more calories on average than comparable meals at national chain restaurants, although the number was not statistically significant, and may have been due to chance. On average, meals at independent or small-chain restaurants came in at about 1,437 calories, compared to the self-reported national chain restaurant industry average of 1,359 calories.

"These comparative findings suggest that both non-chain and chain restaurants contribute to the obesity epidemic, which is making people unhealthy and has a huge impact on health care costs," Roberts said.

The second study looked at 3,507 different variations of 685 meals and 156 desserts from 19 different sit-down restaurants in Canada. The research team looked at calories, fat, saturated fat and sodium levels, as well as the percentage of the recommended daily value.

On average, meals contained 1,128 calories or 56 percent of the average daily recommendation of 2,000 calories. Breaking it down further, the average meal had 51 percent of the amount of recommended daily sodium intake of 2,300 milligrams, 89 percent of the daily value for fat which is 58 grams, 83 percent of the daily value for saturated and trans fat which is 16 grams of saturated fat and 0.6 grams of trans fat, and 60 percent of the 179 gram-daily value for cholesterol.

"In all of the meal categories there are huge ranges in calories, sodium and fats," lead author Mary Scourboutakos, a graduate student at the University of Toronto, said to HealthDay. "You really don't know [what menu choice is healthiest] unless there is calories labeling or sodium labeling. There is no way to predict which meals are going to be the worst."

Roberts told the New York Daily News that patrons should ask their local restaurants to create menus with plates under 500 calories or to list their healthiest items so diners can choose with ease. But, until that day, even she's telling her clients to go to fast food joints -- at least they state their items' nutritional value.

"It's ridiculous that when my dieters say, 'Where is a place I can reliably eat?' I'm going to have to say fast food," she said. "But if you're trying to lose weight and want a restaurant meal for less than 500 calories, go have a salad at McDonald's."

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