BOSTON — When it comes to your health, it’s not only about what you eat but where you eat it. A study by Tufts University says that one of every five calories the average American consumes comes from a restaurant. Those meals usually have poor nutritional value, however, leading to an unhealthy lifestyle for millions across the country.
For the study, researchers analyzed the diets of more than 35,000 U.S. adults. The data comes from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) between 2003 and 2016. The survey looks at adults who dine out at restaurants with wait staff, as well as fast-food spots. Using the 2020 diet score of the American Heart Association, the researchers evaluated certain foods and the nutrients in each meal.
Restaurants serving up junk food?
From 2015 to 2016, researchers say 70 percent of meals at fast-food eateries show a poor dietary quality. These numbers are down from 75 percent in 2003-2004. It’s hit or miss at full-service restaurants, where 50 percent of the meals have poor nutritional quality. The study finds full-service numbers remained steady for the length of the survey.
“Our findings show dining out is a recipe for unhealthy eating most of the time,” says senior author Dariush Mozaffarian in a media release. “It should be a priority to improve the nutritional quality of both full-service and fast-food restaurant meals, while reducing disparities so that all Americans can enjoy the pleasure and convenience of a meal out that is also good for them.”
Healthy eating inequalities
The study also shows there are inequalities in who’s eating healthy foods across America. Non-Hispanic Whites and Mexican-Americans are generally making healthier choices even when consuming fast food. The survey finds no change in the quality of fast food being eaten by non-Hispanic Blacks.
Education also seems to play a role in eating healthy. People with college degrees decreased their consumption of poor-quality fast-food meals from 74 percent to 60 percent during the survey. That number stayed at 76 percent for those without a high school diploma.
Researchers are also looking into America’s calorie intake at restaurants. They find 21 percent of the calories the nations eats come from eating out. Nine percent come from full-service restaurants and 12 percent are fast-food meals. Eating fast food for breakfast is a growing trend too, increasing from four to eight percent over the study.
“We found the largest opportunities for enhancing nutritional quality would be adding more whole grains, nuts and legumes, fish, and fruits and vegetables to meals while reducing salt,” Junxiu Liu, a postdoctoral scholar at the Friedman School says.
“It should be a priority to improve the nutritional quality of both full-service and fast-food restaurant meals, while reducing disparities so that all Americans can enjoy the pleasure and convenience of a meal out that is also good for them,” Mozaffarian adds.
AHA’s 2020 diet score assesses a person’s consumption of fruits and vegetables, fish, grains, sodium, and sugar-sweetened beverages. A secondary score also takes into account your intake of nuts, processed meat, and saturated fats.
“Our food is the number one cause of poor health in the country, representing a tremendous opportunity to reduce diet-related illness and associated healthcare spending,” Mozaffarian explains.
The study is published in The Journal of Nutrition.