In the US, demonization of fast food is almost as popular as the burgers, fries, and sodas themselves. For every car you see in the drive-thru line at the local House of Meat Patties and Obesity, you'll find an article or PSA warning you to put down that paper bag and walk away slowly.
But oddly enough, there isn't much chatter about the consequences of spending three and a half hours at the local all-you-can-eat Cantonese buffet, or having a gnocchi-heavy evening at the local red-checked-tableclothed Italian joint. But that's because those aren't quite as bad, right? Less processed? Less salty?
A new study published this month in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition says sorry, buddy—eating out is eating out, and you're not doing less damage to your waistline by opting for full-service enchiladas from the local spot over foil-wrapped tacos with shredded cheese product from an international Tex-Mex chain.
Apparently, in spite of the fact that your mother may smother your pasta in butter or mix mayo into her cream sauces, home cooking is still measurably healthier than restaurant food. Not just fast food. Period. Sorry.
It also tends to have fewer calories and lower levels of fat and sugar. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign noted that although fast food is frequently cited as junk food or for having poor nutritional content, but public awareness about eating out in general could be a more effective way of combating America's growing issues of obesity and heart disease.
The study examined survey data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which collects responses from more than 18,000 adults about their dietary habits, including where they dined and what they ate. A whopping one-third of respondents had eaten fast food at least once in the past two days, while one-fourth had eaten at full-service restaurants during that period.
The fast-food eaters consumed an average of 190 more calories, 11 additional grams of fat, and 3.5 additional grams of saturated fat compared to those who cooked and ate at home, as well as higher levels of cholesterol and sodium—ten milligrams and 300 milligrams, respectively.
But those who actually made it out of their cars and sat down at full-service restaurants filled up on the additional bad stuff in almost exactly the same quantities: on average, 187 more calories per day, ten more grams of fat, and 2.5 g more grams of saturated fat. And eating at a sit-down restaurant resulted in an intake of 60 extra milligrams of cholesterol and more than 400 additional milligrams of sodium—higher on both fronts than the fast food fodder.
Ruopeng An, a lead researcher on the project and professor of kinesiology and community health at UIU-C, told Reuters, "People don't know much about the food provided by full-service restaurants and if it is better or healthier compared to fast food or compared to food prepared and consumed at home."
There was also a mini class war embedded in the statistics: while the least-educated respondents were the most likely to get their extra calories from fast food, middle-income and obese respondents were more likely to indulge in the more bourgeois world of sit-down fare—and get the extra fat, salt, and cholesterol to boot.
That's not surprising though, if you think about it: if you've got more dough, you're probably gonna order more, and from classier joints. And if you're obese … well, there's a greater likelihood that you're filling up your plate when you do chow down outside your abode.
Plus, there's the menu factor. The US Food and Drug Administration mandates that restaurants with 20 or more locations have to list the caloric and nutritional content of their dishes—constituting the vast majority of fast-food chains, but a small proportion of full-service restaurants. As a result, you're not forced to think about the bodily cost of eating a 22-ounce ribeye steak with mashed potatoes in the same way that the harrowing realities of a large Burger King Oreo shake stare you dead in the eye (all 970 calories of them). The guilt factor is out of sight and out of mind, and hey, when in Rome, right?
So while you may feel like you're going a little crazy with the olive oil or heavy cream while making fettuccine at home, you're still better off ,and probably not even close to being as heavy-handed with fat and salt as a fast-food spot or local restaurant. Though, you could choose to cook "healthily" at home—whatever that means to you.
Just remember this: you may feel better ordering foie gras than French fries, but it doesn't make a damn difference whether you have a white tablecloth or not once it's in your stomach.