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Preventive Cardiology Clinic

Which is Worse: Fast-Food or Full-Service Restaurant Meals?

We all know that avoiding fast-food is a good idea, since these meals tend to be high in calories and low in nutritional value. But is a full-service restaurant really the healthier choice? Turns out it might actually be worse.

A study just published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition examined the food diaries of more than 18,000 adult Americans to see where and what people ate. They also analyzed the associated nutrients. The findings were eye opening.

Compared to home cooked meals, on average:

  • Fast-food and full-service meals added nearly identical extra calories: about 190 per day. To put that in perspective, an extra 100 calories per day adds 10 pounds over the course of a year. So if you eat one meal out every day, you could be 19 lbs heavier a year from now.

  • Fast-food and full-service meals added similar amounts of extra fat --10 grams -- and extra saturated fat-- about 3 grams -- per day.

  • Full-service meals added over 400 mg of extra sodium, while fast-food meals added nearly 300 mg. 400 mg of extra sodium per day translates to nearly 1 and 1/2 cups of salt over the course of a year (measure it out - it's a LOT).

Additionally, full-service meals added significantly more dietary cholesterol - 6 times that of fast-food meals.

The moral of the story is not that fast food is the healthier choice. The moral is that regardless of where we eat, we have to be thoughtful about what we eat.

A few simple ways to improve on the health impact of eating out regardless of where you eat out:

  • When you can, pick restaurants that include nutritional facts on their menus or on their websites. Knowledge is power.

  • Avoid restaurants that promise the largest servings for the fewest dollars. The nutritional value of what you’ll be eating will likely be low while calories will be high.

  • Choose water rather than a sweetened beverage. This is the easiest way to cut down on extra (and empty) calories – as well as the tab.

  • Avoid the extras. Decline the bread basket, the pickles and the chips. All of these items add lots of sodium with little nutritional benefit.

  • Opt for healthier accompaniments – salad or fruit instead of fries. This will help you cut down on unhealthy fats.

  • Ask for sauces and dressings on the side. Use these sparingly because they tend to be high in sodium, unhealthy fats and calories.

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