Dining out is a recipe for unhealthy eating for most Americans

In a new study, researchers found that the typical American adult gets one of every five calories from a restaurant, but eating out is a recipe for meals of poor nutritional quality in most cases.

The research was conducted by a team at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.

The study analyzed the dietary selections of more than 35,000 U.S. adults from 2003-2016 in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) who dined at full-service (those with wait staff) or fast-food restaurants, which included pizza shops and what has become known as fast-casual.

The researchers assessed nutritional quality by evaluating specific foods and nutrients in the meals, based on the American Heart Association 2020 diet score.

At fast-food restaurants, 70% of the meals Americans consumed were of poor dietary quality in 2015-16, down from 75% in 2003-04.

At full-service restaurants, about 50% were of poor nutritional quality, an amount that remained stable over the study period. The remainder were of intermediate nutritional quality.

Notably, the authors found that less than 0.1% – almost none – of all the restaurant meals consumed over the study period were of ideal quality.

The researchers also looked at the extent to which Americans relied on restaurants during the study period and found:

Restaurant meals accounted for 21% of Americans’ total calorie intake.

Full-service restaurant meals represented 9% of total calories consumed.

Fast-food meals represented 12% of total calories consumed.

Fast-food breakfasts increased from just over 4% to nearly 8% of all breakfasts eaten in America.

The findings show dining out is a recipe for unhealthy eating most of the time.

The team says 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.

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.

Efforts from the restaurant industry, consumers, advocacy groups, and governments should focus on both these areas.

The lead author of the study is Dariush Mozaffarian, the dean of the Friedman School.

The study is published in The Journal of Nutrition.

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