Huge, high-calorie portions at restaurants a serious problem worldwide

Alarming study shows average full-service restaurant meal contained 33 percent more calories than a fast-food meal in five countries.

MEDFORD, Mass. — Perhaps the key to maintaining a healthy weight is to just never eat out. A massive study of popular meals in full-service and fast food restaurants across five countries revealed that a staggering number of high-calorie menu options and large portions are contributing to the worldwide obesity epidemic.

Researchers at Tufts University say that overdoing it at our favorite diners is not unique to the United States, despite our nation’s reputation when it comes to obesity. They found that in the five countries they examined — Brazil, China, Ghana, India, and Finland — between 2014 and 2017, plates overflowing with food and recipes using unhealthy amounts of high-calorie ingredients are causing obesity levels to rise.

In the five countries studied, 94 percent of full-service meals and 72 percent of fast food meals contained 600 calories or more. They also found that the average full-service meal had 33 percent more calories (1,317) than fast food meals (809), suggesting that fast food restaurants should not be singled out as causers of obesity.

“Fast food has been widely cited as an easy target for diet change because of its high calorie content; however, previous work by our team in the U.S. identified restaurant meals in general as an important target for interventions to address obesity,” explains first and co-corresponding author Dr. Susan B. Roberts, a senior scientist and director of the university’s Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, in a release. “Eating out is now common around the world, but it is important to keep in mind that it is easy to overeat when a large restaurant meal is likely to be only one of several meals and snacks consumed that day.”

The study measured the caloric content of 111 randomly selected fast food and full-service restaurants in the countries surveyed. It also included five worksite canteens in Finland that provides subsidized options for workers onsite. The information was compared to calorie levels in the United States. The mean caloric content for restaurant meals in the U.S. (1,088 calories per meal) was lower than all countries surveyed except China (719 calories per meal).

“Current average portion sizes are high in relation to calorie requirements and recommendations globally,” says Roberts. “As three meals and one or more snacks in between is common, including in the countries we studied, large restaurant portions should be examined further for their potential role in the global obesity epidemic.”

Prior research has suggested that limiting restaurant meals to 600 calories could potential make a dent in the growing obesity problem worldwide, with numbers tripling in the last four decades, according to the World Health Organization.

The study was published December 12, 2018 in BMJ.

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