Nearly two-thirds of American adults are overweight, and a new study may bring us closer to understanding exactly why that is so. Researchers at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston have found that 92 percent of American restaurant meals—including meals served at both chain and non-chain restaurants—contain way too many calories. Enough calories to make you fat, if you eat out on the regular.
The new study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, looked at meals served at 123 restaurants in three cities across America. Turns out that single-meal servings—excluding beverages, apps, and desserts— exceeded recommended calorie requirements for a single meal pretty much all the time. In fact, single meals sometimes exceeded the caloric requirements for an entire day.
Bottom line? If you eat out a lot and polish off your meals with aplomb, you're screwed.
And really, you shouldn't blame yourself. Susan B. Roberts, the director of the Energy Metabolism Lab at Tufts, points out that you don't have weak willpower if you want to suck down the entire meal you are served and then lick the plate. Instead, you are exhibiting a well-documented, Pavlovian response: "More than 100 years ago the Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov received the first Nobel Prize awarded for integrated systems physiology for discovering the 'cephalic phase of digestion,' which is basically a mechanism designed to make us hungry and tempted when there is available food for the taking.
All we have to do is see and smell food and our sympathetic nervous system revs up, insulin secretion drops blood glucose and our stomach relaxes—the goal of these physiological changes being to prepare us to eat all the food within reach."
The study looked at selected restaurants in Boston, San Francisco, and Little Rock, Arkansas between the years 2011 and 2014. The researchers compared the actual calorie count of the meals against human calorie requirements. The cuisines included American, Chinese, Greek, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Thai, and Vietnamese food.
The worst troublemakers were American, Chinese, and Italian restaurants, which had calorie counts with a mean of 1,495 calories per meal. Again, we are talking about main courses only.
The authors of the study point out that their findings are even more troubling for women than they are for men. Co-author William Masters, Ph.D., a professor of food economics, explains: "Standard meals are sized for the hungriest customers, so most people need superhuman self-control to avoid overeating. There is a gender dimension here that is really important: women typically have a lower caloric requirement than men, so on average need to eat less. Women, while dining out, typically have to be more vigilant."
So, if you enjoy eating out—like most human beings who are fun to be around—we're sure you'll agree that this news sucks.
"These findings make it clear that making healthy choices while eating out is difficult because the combination of tempting options and excessive portions often overwhelm our self-control," Roberts says.
Masters, however, proposes a solution to this dismal problem: He says our lawmakers should enact local ordinances mandating that customers be allowed to order partial portions at partial prices. This, he believes, would cause restaurants to reduce portion sizes and make them more in line with what the average customer wants, rather than the hungriest person. "Customers could then order anything on the menu in a more appropriate size, and be able to eat out more often without weight gain," he says.
Will America ever become a land where portion sizes are less than gargantuan? Maybe so, if and when we finally come to realize that the size of our portions is directly related to the size of our overfed bodies.