Dining Out: New Calorie and Sodium Woes

Before you plan your next meal away from home, you may want to learn what researchers are learning about sit-down and fast food restaurants which may pose new threats to your waistline and overall health.

Three independent studies released in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s (JAMA) Internal Medicine May 2013 Edition issued new findings about calorie content and sodium levels in sit-down restaurants (referred to as “SDRs) and fast food venues.


Two studies focused their research on calorie and nutrient information. University of Toronto researchers analyzed the nutritional information of 685 meals ordered at 19 sit-down restaurant chains and discovered the average diner meal contained 1,128 calories — 56% of the average daily 2,000-calorie intake recommended by the Food and Drug Administration for a healthy adult. A typical lunch packed more than 1,000 calories on average, and at 1,226 calories on average — breakfast meals totaled even higher. “On average, [meals] contained 151 percent of recommended daily salt intake, 89 percent of daily fat, and 60 percent of daily cholesterol,” researchers cited.

Similarly, researchers at Tufts University in Boston analyzed the calorie and nutritional content of more than 40 of the most frequently purchased dishes from the nine most common food categories purchased to discover that they to be even more disastrous to weight control efforts. Many of these eateries will not be required to post nutritional information when new health care laws go into effect later this year and without it, “fail to allow consumers to make informed choices about their diet.” Researchers calculated that the average lunch or dinner entree with sides contained 1,327 calories — 17% more than similar menu items offered at larger chains. A “rack of ribs” was one of the worst nutritional offenders among both studies. 

Meanwhile, data on sodium levels in processed foods did not fare much better in a joint study conducted by Northwestern University and the Center for Science in the Public Interest.  Results showed that on average, sodium content in 402 packaged foods only decreased 3.5 percent between 2005 and 2011. In addition, 78 items found in chain restaurants increased in sodium during that same time frame by 2.6 percent. “The current high levels of sodium in packaged and restaurant foods, if not reduced, will likely cause at least one million deaths and $100 billion in health-care costs in the coming decade,” researchers say. “Action by the FDA requiring the food industry to lower sodium in our food supply is long overdue and should begin without further delay. The Obama administration should take action forthwith.”

The findings come at a time when dining out accounts for a larger share of total away-from-home food spending and whose share is expected to rise over the next decade. Meanwhile, growing data supports the notion that excess consumption of calories and sodium contributes to obesity, hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and, cancer.

Researchers have made several important recommendations on proactive choices you can make when electing to dine out. These include:

  • Preparing your own meals at home slashes calorie consumption by 20 percent to 35 percent, simply because there is a tendency to serve yourself smaller portion sizes than are put before you when eating out.
  • Asking a server to wrap up half of your meal before it hits the table.
  • Ordering a “lunch” or “half-” portion.
  • Sharing an entree with a friend.


  1. Scourboutakos MJ, Semnani-Azad Z, L’Abbe MR. Restaurant Meals: Almost a Full Day’s Worth of Calories, Fats, and Sodium.JAMA Intern Med. 2013;():1-2. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.6159.
  2. Urban LE, Lichtenstein AH, Gary CE, et al. The Energy Content of Restaurant Foods Without Stated Calorie Information. JAMA Intern Med. 2013;():1-8. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.6163.
  3. Jacobson MF, Havas S, McCarter R. Changes in Sodium Levels in Processed and Restaurant Foods, 2005 to 2011. JAMA Intern Med. 2013;():1-7. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.6154.
  4. http://abcnews.go.com/Health/restaurant-meals-higher-calories-fast-food-studies-find/story?id=19170366#.UZPe3LXCaSp
  5. http://cspinet.org/new/201305131.html