Casual dining restaurants vs. fast food

Fast food is widely thought to be unhealthy and most nutritionists recommend eating it infrequently, if at all.

While is it possible to make healthy choices at most fast food restaurants, the food that most people order is typically high in calories and fat as well as added sugar and salt.

As a consequence, many people seek other options that they believe are healthier. More and more, this includes casual dining restaurants such as Applebee’s, Ruby Tuesday, and T.G.I. Friday’s. But are meals at these restaurants necessarily any healthier than fast food?

This was the question that one of my students, Kyle Sprow, sought to answer in a research project this semester. Kyle analyzed the calories, fat, sugar, and salt content of meals from a traditional fast food restaurant (McDonald’s), a “healthy” fast food restaurant (Subway), casual dining chain restaurant (Applebee’s).

For the casual dining restaurant he analyzed meals from the regular menu as well as a low-calorie menu. He compared the average of several meals at each restaurant for the comparison. Although he focused on these three restaurants, the findings are consistent for other fast food and casual dining restaurants.

First, Kyle found great variation in the menu offerings at all three restaurants. Subway, which has developed a healthy image, does have several choices that are low in fat and calories. But Subway also has many items, including many of their most popular sandwiches, that are comparable to traditional fast food.

Likewise, it is possible to make healthy choices at McDonald’s, but the most popular value menu combinations are not among these items. At Applebee’s, the regular and low-calorie menu are so different it is surprising they are in the same restaurant.

Second, while it may seem that a sit-down restaurant is a healthier choice than fast food, this is not always the case. The large portions at these restaurants means that an entrée, even one that appears to be healthy, can have more calories than a whole fast food meal.

For example, the Oriental Chicken Salad at Applebee’s has nearly 1400 calories while a Big Mac value meal, which includes fries and a drink, has less than 1200 calories. And ordering an appetizer can add hundreds more calories to a restaurant meal. On average, a typical meal at a casual dining restaurant is likely to have more calories and fat than a fast food meal.

By contrast, the healthy menu options at Applebee’s are lower in calories and fat than a healthy fast food meal at Subway. Much of this is due to the smaller portion sizes of these menu items. In fact, most of these options really are healthy choices.

No matter where you eat, you need to make smart choices to limit your calories, fat, and salt (no matter where you eat, you are likely to get at least half of your daily limit of sodium!). Here are some suggestions:

• Limit portion sizes by ordering smaller sandwiches such as a six inch sub at Subway or a regular cheeseburger instead of a Big Mac at McDonald’s.

• Share an entrée or take half home and skip (or at least share) an appetizer or dessert.

• Order sauces and dressings on the side. Nearly half of the calories and most of the fat in the Oriental Chicken Salad mentioned above comes from the dressing!

• Don’t drink your calories— order water, unsweet tea, or diet soda or have one drink followed by water.

One final note: Making good choices at meals is only one part of a healthy lifestyle, so balance what you eat with regular physical activity!

Brian Parr, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior.

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