By Serena Gordon
WEDNESDAY, January 29, 2020 (HealthDay News) – Whether you stop at an informal fast-food place or sit down to eat in a full-service restaurant, eating out is an easy way to fill up when you're hungry. But those meals may not deliver much nutritional value, a new study suggests.
The researchers found that 70% of fast food meals consumed in the United States had poor nutritional value. For full-service restaurants, about half of the meals had low nutritional value.
Less than 0.1% of the meals in restaurants analyzed during the entire study period (2003 to 2016) were considered of ideal nutritional quality.
"On a given day, almost a third of American adults eat at a full-service restaurant, and almost half at a fast-food restaurant. The nutritional quality of most of these meals is poor and almost none is ideal, and This is true for both fast-service and full-service restaurants, "said lead study author Dariush Mozaffarian. He is dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston.
"Today, more American adults are sick than healthy, and much of this is due to diet-related illnesses. Finding healthier restaurant options should be a priority for all Americans."
In the past 30 years, American foods have largely shifted from home cooked meals to restaurant meals, the study authors said. Today, the typical American gets one in five calories he eats from a restaurant.
Other studies have found a link between restaurant foods and an increased risk of poor health outcomes, such as type 2 diabetes, the researchers said. But there was little research on the nutritional quality of individual restaurant meals.
The latest study included information from a nationally representative sample of more than 35,000 American adults. All provided dietary information over a 24-hour period.
The researchers rated the nutritional value of food using a diet score from the American Heart Association.
Fast foods accounted for 12% of all calories consumed. Full-service restaurant meals constituted 9% of all calories consumed. During the study period, fast food breakfasts went from about 4% of the calories consumed to 8%.
The study found some disparities when it comes to nutrition in restaurant meals. The quality of fast foods for whites and Mexican Americans improved during the study period. But there was no similar change in the quality of fast foods that black Americans eat.
For people with university degrees, poor quality meals from fast food restaurants fell from 74% to 60% during the study. For people without a high school diploma, 76% of fast foods had poor nutritional value.
"Restaurants aggressively develop and promote unhealthy options for marginalized and low-income communities, and restaurant options in these communities tend to be less healthy. It is a vicious circle, and one that must be broken," Mozaffarian said.
Restaurants need to add more whole grains, nuts, legumes, fish, vegetables and fruits to their meals to increase the nutritional value, the researchers said. The amount of salt in the food should also be reduced, they noted.
Mozaffarian said to choose seltzer or unsweetened tea instead of soda, and to minimize the amount of processed meats you eat.
He said people don't necessarily need to eat less frequently, but when they have dinner (even if it's fast food), they can choose healthier options from the menu.
Dietitian Audrey Koltun, of the Cohen Children's Medical Center in Lake Success, New York, said: "Most restaurants, but not all, have healthy options, or at least somewhat better, if chosen. There have been trends that focus on healthier meals for children, whole grains and vegetarian options, but people want to eat what they want when eating out or to go. "
She said that even people who are aware of nutrition when preparing food at home can see eating out as a "cheat" day, so they don't pay attention to the nutritional quality of their food.
Koltun noted that cost is an important factor in the choice of food. Many fast food places have a cheaper menu, and noted that these foods are likely to be of lower quality and nutritional value.
The study was published on January 29 in The nutrition diary.