The average American adult gets about 20 percent of their calories—that is one in five—from some kind of food service establishment (typically a restaurant). While this is certainly a tasty way to get to know your city, this is also quite a poor way to get your daily nutrition.
A new study analyzed the dietary choices made by more than 35,000 adults in the US between 2003 and 2016 through the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Those involved in the study had dined at either fast food restaurants or full-service establishments (those with a wait staff). This includes not only burger joints and steak-houses but everything in between from pizza shops to fast-casual places that are very common these days.
As such, study co-author Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, BS, describes, “Our findings indicate that major efforts are needed to improve the nutritional quality of meals consumed at US restaurants—both what’s available on the menu and marketed, and what Americans actually choose.”
For the study, the researchers assessed the nutritional quality of the menu items ordered by evaluating specific nutrients in the meals as described by the American Heart Association 2020 diet score.
The dean of the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy goes on to say, “Looking at how close or far each meal was from ideal, the biggest problem is actually too few healthy components.”
The study revealed that 70 percent of meals consumed by American adults were of quite poor dietary quality (in 2015 and 2016). Fortunately, this is down from 75 percent from ten years before. Similarly, the study revealed that roughly 50 percent of full-service meals consumed in America were of poor nutritional quality; and that has remained the same over time.
The lead study author also advises, “Adding more healthy foods to restaurant meals, while reducing salt, is the biggest opportunity for improving their healthfulness.”
Most importantly, perhaps, the authors say that less than 0.1 percent of all the restaurants meals consumed over the course of the study period were of “ideal” quality.
Finally, Mozaffarian concludes, “Our 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. At restaurants, two forces are at play: what’s available on the menu, and what Americans are actually selecting. Efforts from the restaurant industry, consumers, advocacy groups, and governments should focus on both these areas.”
The results of this study have been published in The Journal of Nutrition.