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Nutrition Guidelines Needed for Full-Service Restaurants

You avoid fast food chains and patronize full-service chains instead, so you’re eating healthy. Right? Maybe not.  According to a study done at Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania, food served at full-service restaurant chains is typically high in calories, saturated fat, and sodium. The team maintains that standard definitions are needed for ''healthy choice'' tags and for entrées targeted to vulnerable age groups. The article was published in the January 2014 issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior foods

A release from the publisher notes that food prepared away from home is usually higher in calories and lower in nutrition than food prepared at home, yet restaurant and store-bought food now make up more than one-third of all calories purchased in the United States. Consumers tend to believe that full-service restaurants as providing healthier, higher quality food than fast-food restaurants, but some previous studies have found much higher calorie, fat, and sodium levels in food at full-service restaurants than in the much-maligned fast food chains. The current study is based on more than 2,600 menu items served at full-service restaurant chains operating in Philadelphia. The team concluded that nutrition information provided at full-service restaurants has lagged behind fast-food restaurants. However, a 2010 menu labeling ordinance in Philadelphia provided an opportunity for an in-depth study of the calorie and nutrition content of menu items served at full-service restaurants. The study included 21 full-service restaurant chains that offered single-serving entrees and provided calories and sodium information for all menu items on either their websites or printed menus.

The study focused on entrées, appetizers, and side dishes, but also provided information on other less consistently labeled menu categories. The release quotes lead researcher Amy Auchincloss, PhD, MPH, of the Drexel University School of Public Health as saying, "The need to educate customers about the nutritional content of restaurant foods is acute because consumers increasingly eat away from home, restaurants serve large portions of energy-dense and high-sodium foods, and obesity and the prevalence of other diet-related diseases are high."  

Although no guidelines exist for appropriate nutrient levels of full-service restaurant menu items, about half of the entrées did not meet the study's "healthier" calorie criteria, based on general nutrition advice in the US Dietary Guidelines. Almost one-third of the entreées exceeded the total daily recommended value for sodium, and only one-fifth met recommended fiber minimums. Items targeting seniors and children had fewer calories, but often exceeded the daily recommended value for fat and sodium. More than half of the studied restaurants designate some healthy choices on their menus, but the meaning of that designation varies. In most cases, only calorie content is considered and the choices may still have high sodium levels.

Nutrition education may help the consumer evaluate these menu items on their own. Based on related work, this same research team has previously reported that consumers at full-service restaurants who used nutritional information on the menu ordered significantly fewer calories. However, policy changes for restaurants that parallel those of fast food may be more effective. Having a definition for a healthy choice entrée could help consumers who want to choose food for taste and health promotion.