Eating-out Perils

  • Two out of three Americans are now overweight or obese and the fast food industry may be part of the problem.
  • Americans eat out a significant amount of the time and about one-third our daily calories comes from “eating out.”
  • Congress passed a law in 2010 requiring chain restaurants with 20 or more outlets to list calories and other nutrition information on menus and menu boards.

Eating take-out more often is not the only reason for the record numbers of Americans who are over-weight or obese but is an often  This is association is particularly strong for children and teens. About 17% of American children and adolescents aged 2-19 years are obese -that’s about 12.7 million children. Obesity has become a public health crisis in the United States, in part, because Americans are consuming more calories (and the wrong calories) than they did 30 years ago.

Eating-out is big business

In 1977 to 1978, people got about 18 percent of their daily calories from these kinds of foods; in 1995, the percentage had risen to 34 percent. Out-of-home food expenditures went from about 25% of total food costs per person in 1970 to nearly 50% in 2002 and the trend continues up. As a result, a greater proportion of calories and nutrients comes from away-from-home food sources. These choices are often high in calories, sugar, salt and often high in refined carbohydrates. In addition, the number of US fast-food restaurants has nearly doubled in the last three decades.

President Barack Obama’s 2010 Affordable Care Act contains a requirement that restaurants with at least 20 outlets in the U.S. make their nutritional information available to customers. Smaller independent restaurants are not required to display nutritional information.

Inexpensive high-calorie choices

Some important considerations: food is cheaper for Americans than it used to be and our environment is flooded with less nutrient dense processed foods. Moreover, we are unwittingly consuming more added and too often hidden sugars in foods labelled low or fat-free. These added sugar calories are often masquerading under aliases such as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) which unlike other sources of calories has a greater effect on our collective waistlines.

According to an ongoing CDC program that provides a snapshot of the health and nutritional status of Americans (NHANES) the major sources of calories in American diets come from: desserts (processed grain-based and dairy), sodas, pizza, chips, and burgers. Junk foods with low nutrient density are less expensive than healthier choices like fruits and vegetables. The Consumer Price Index shows about a 40% increase in costs of fruits and vegetables since the 1980s while the indexed price of desserts, snack foods and sodas has declined by 20-30%.

Some say the environment is toxic when it comes to food choices and attempting to implement more health conscious nutrition may be difficult. Beware of the following:

  • marketing food as “healthy”
  • marketing foods with “low and no-added fat”
  • proximity of fast-food restaurants to schools
  • vending machines in schools with low nutrient processed foods
  • over abundance of food sources: 96% of pharmacies, 94% gasoline stations sell processed food

“Super-sized” foods

Portion sizes in this country have also increased both in restaurants and in the home over the past two decades and parallels the increased prevalence of overweight and obese Americans. Most Americans, that is 67% of us, are now overweight or obese and has become the  new norm. “Portion distortion” is a novel term created to describe the perception of large portions as appropriate amounts to eat at a single eating occasion. For example, the size of an average dinner plate has increased by 36% since 1960. Bagels have increased by 250% in the past 20 years: from 140 to 350 calories. Since 1955 McDonald’s portion sizes have increased dramatically with beverage portion size increasing nearly 500% from 7 to 32 fluid ounces. French fries portion size and hamburgers increased by about 200-300% since 1955. Although the trend began in the 1970s, larger portion sizes became more common in the 1980s and 1990s. Food supply and eating habits have added to the obesity problem such as “super-sizing” and the wide availability of 32-ounce (add 720 calories) soft drinks.

Super-sized winners

  • Cheesecake Factory comes in on top with some cheese cake slices with 1,000 calories per slice and more than 3,000 calories in a Cheesecake Factory pasta dish.
  • More than 2,500 calories are in the Crispy Chicken Costoletta choice with more than a total day’s amount of sodium at more than 2,500 milligrams.
  • Johnny Rockets’ Bacon Cheddar Double Hamburger: 1,770 calories, 50 grams of saturated fat and a whopping 2,380 milligrams of sodium.
  • One slice of Chocolate Zuccotto Cake from Maggiano’s Little Italy is super-sized and weighs about one pound and has 1,820 calories, 62 grams of saturated fat and 26 teaspoons of added sugar.

Healthy options

The environment is certainly an issue that makes good nutrition more difficult -especially when we eat out -this is where more mindful eating is so important. Menu labeling provides some help for those who want a more proactive stake in their health. Well established healthy dietary habits include:

  • Eating out less and preparing real food at home more often.
  • Real food means sufficient fruits and vegetables and whole grains, while minimizing salty meals and sugary beverages and adding fish, nuts, seeds and legumes.
  • Consider good sources of protein since protein can increase the sense of fullness and lessen the urge for the midnight run to the fridge.
  • Water as a beverage may be a useful, inexpensive alternative to sugary beverages in reducing calories and provides a sense of fullness (better satiety)
  • More salad -dressing on the side
  • Make substitutions: more veggies less fries
  • Skip the bread basket

For interpreting serving sizes the following may be a useful guide:

  • 1 cup of FRUIT: 1 small apple, medium pear, ¼ of a pineapple, 2 large plums, 1 large peach, 8 large strawberries, 1 large banana 8-9 inches, 1 large orange, cantaloupe: 1/8 a large melon
  • 1 cup of VEGETABLES: 4 Asparagus spears, 1 Bell Pepper: 3 inch diameter, Broccoli: a baseball (fistful) size, Lettuce, Spinach: 1 large leave, Green Beans: about 19, Corn: 1 ear 8-9 inches, Zucchini: 1 whole 7-8 inches
  • 1 cup of fresh fruit = baseball
  • 3 ounces of grilled fish, meat, or poultry = checkbook