You probably already know not to make a habit out of chowing down on fast food chicken nuggets and cheeseburgers for dinner. But new research suggests that no matter where you dine out, you’re likely eating too many calories—and that includes your favorite neighborhood spot, not just fast food restaurants.
When the Food and Drug Administration made it mandatory for chain restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus in 2014, it became impossible to ignore that a Happy Meal was anything but when it came to calories. Even “healthy” fast food options tip the scales. But when it came to dining out at restaurants that had no such requirement, we were—and are—on our own when it comes to figuring out whether or not we can afford the calories in our favorite meals.
Turns out, we probably can’t. A new study out of Tufts University suggests almost no meal out—whether from Burger King or the neighborhood mom-and-pop Italian restaurant—isn’t safe if you’re watching your weight. Researchers measured the calorie content in 364 frequently-ordered meals from 123 large-chain and non-chain restaurants in Boston, San Francisco and Little Rock, Arkansas. Their findings may make you want to cancel your dinner reservation tonight. Single meals—appetizers, dessert and beverages not included—sometimes exceed caloric requirements for an entire day, and 92 percent of the restaurant meals exceed the calorie requirements for a single meal.
“Although fast-food restaurants are often the easiest targets for criticism because they provide information on their portion sizes and calories, small restaurants typically provide just as many calories, and sometimes more,” senior author Susan B. Roberts, Ph.D., said in a press release. Some cuisine was worse than others—researchers tested American, Chinese, Greek, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Thai and Vietnamese food, with American, Chinese and Italian racking up the most calories (a mean of 1,495 per meal).
So how do you continue to dine out without having to buy larger pants every year? Study co-author, William Masters, Ph.D., thinks the solution starts with the restaurants themselves, with local ordinances that allow customers to order partial portions for lower prices. “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 said.
Until restaurants get on board, though—and you might be waiting a while—try the following tips for ordering and eating healthier at restaurants:
- Cut the portion size yourself. Ask your server if you can pack up half your meal in a to-go box before it even gets to your table so you’re not tempted to clean your plate.
- Start with soup. One study found that diners who ate soup before their lunch entree ended up eating 20 percent fewer calories overall. Just stick with something broth-based—cream-based soups are more caloric.
- Order an appetizer as your entree. Some restaurants offer the same meal in appetizer and entree portions. Order the former and save major calories.
- Substitute the sides. Can’t part with your favorite restaurant’s signature burger? Go ahead and get your favorite dish—but substitute the side of fries with a salad. A side of veggies will bulk up the meal without a calorie overload.
- Take your time. Leptin, a hormone produced by fat cells, helps tell your brain that you’re full. But some research suggests that eating too quickly doesn’t give the process enough time to work. Another reason to slow down? Practicing mindful eating can help you pay better attention to hunger and fullness cues—and even enjoy your food more.