Restaurant meals overloaded with salt, fat, calories, study says

Restaurant meals overloaded with salt, fat, calories, study says
Restaurant meals and processed foods are not doing your diet any favors, according to two new studies in JAMA Internal Medicine. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Want to satisfy your full day's requirement of salt, fat and calories? Sit down in a restaurant and order a meal.

After an exhaustive analysis of 3,507 possible ways to order 685 meals at 19 restaurants chains in Canada, researchers found that the average meal contained 151% of the recommended daily value of sodium. That means a single breakfast, lunch or dinner had enough sodium to get you through an entire day and a half. Overall, more than 80% of the meals studied contained at least a full day's supply of sodium, according to a report published online Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine.


And how about some fat to go along with that salt? The average restaurant meal contained 58 grams of fat (89% of the recommended total for the day), the researchers found. That included 16 grams of saturated fat and 0.6 grams of trans fat (83% of the recommended totals for the day) and 179 milligrams of cholesterol (60% of the amount needed in a whole day). Almost half of all restaurant meals contained more than a full day's supply of fat, and 25% exceeded a full day's supply of cholesterol, the study found.

With 1,128 calories, the average restaurant meal contained 56% of the 2,000 calories most people need all day. Ordering dessert added another 549 calories to the total, on average.

The results were remarkably consistent across breakfast, lunch and dinner. For instance, the average breakfast contained 1,126 calories and 52 grams of fat; the average lunch had 1,025 calories and 53 grams of fat; and the average dinner had 1,153 calories and 60 grams of fat. The average amount of sodium in breakfasts, lunches and dinners ranged from 2,029 to 2,297 milligrams.

In one bright spot, meals that were labeled as "healthy" options contained far less salt (50% of the recommended daily value), fat (20% of the daily value) and saturated fat (17% of the daily value) than other offerings, along, with a relatively low 474 calories, the researchers found.

The study focused on the "disease-promoting potential" of meals in "sit-down restaurants," which are a distinct category from fast food. Nutritional information was gleaned from a University of Toronto database. Excess consumption of calories, fat and salt makes a person more vulnerable to obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and cancer, the research team noted.

A separate study led by Michael Jacobson from the Center for Science in the Public Interest focused on the amount of sodium in processed foods and offerings from fast-food restaurants. About 70 million Americans have high blood pressure that increases their risk of heart attack, stroke or heart failure by a factor of 1.5 to 2.5 over a 10-year period, Jacobson and colleagues noted.

Despite calls from the Institute of Medicine and other health-minded organizations, restaurants and makers of processed foods have made little progress in reducing their reliance on salt. Between 2005 and 2011, the average amount of sodium in processed foods fell a total of 3.5%, or 0.5% per year, the study reported.

The researchers examined the amount of sodium in 402 processed food items in 2005 and again in 2011. The amount of sodium fell in 41.8% of cases, rose in 29.6% of cases and stayed even in the remaining 28.6% of cases.

Restaurants did even worse – the average amount of sodium in their offerings actually rose 2.4% during the same period. That worked out to an increase of 0.3% per year.

Restaurants could take a lot of salt out of their foods without customers noticing, Jacobson and his coauthors wrote. They noted that a McDonald's Quarter Pounder With Cheese had 34% more sodium than Burger King's Original Whopper With Cheese, and an order of Burger King French fries had 98% more sodium than an order of fries from McDonald's.

"Voluntary action has failed to reduce sodium levels in foods to any meaningful extent," they concluded. "To protect the health of our patients, prompt, strong regulatory action to lower levels of sodium in processed and restaurant foods is necessary. Those limits should be lowered gradually over the next 10 years to ensure that we meet at least a 50% reduction in sodium intake."

You can read summaries of the studies online here and here.

For advice on ways to cut fat, salt and calories from your diet, check out the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and these tips on making sensible choices.

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