Can You Eat Out and Eat Right?

by Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN on January 20, 2007 · 3 comments

Americans spend 45% of their food budget on away-from-home foods.

Restaurants, take-out joints, high-calorie snacks and vending machines are all taking blame for America’s obesity epidemic. But is the food and restaurant industry the evil conspirator we are led to believe? Aren’t Americans, free to make choices, in part responsible for their fates—and weights?

In a democracy with a free-market economy, everyone shares some of the blame – we who eat out, and those who supply the food we eat.

There will be no quick fix for this problem. But, everyone, including the federal government, public health agencies, food companies, trade associations, and medical professionals, is looking for ways to slim down America. And there are lots of questions that need to be answered along the way.

Why do we eat out more?

The simple answer – we can. Today food is cheaper than ever, using up barely 11% of our disposable income. And, we produce more food than at any time in our history, enough to feed everyone in the U.S. 3,900 calories a day.

We are constantly enticed to eat. Chain restaurants line up like dominos along major roads. Have you ever visited a mall without a food court? And, at midnight in most towns, there is at least one 24-hour store, pizza parlor, ice cream store, or newsstand selling food. Large cities have so many places open all night; it makes you wonder where everyone is eating during the day.

Then there is the ubiquitous advertising; coupons; give-aways such as “kids eat free.” And in time-crunched families, work, commutes and other commitments take time away from household tasks, including meal preparation.

Should food chains and restaurants help us eat better?

It makes good business sense to be on the right side of the obesity battle, and companies are lining up to show they are in the fight. Over 50% of chain restaurants now provide nutrition information on websites, at point-of-purchase, or in booklets. Smaller chains and independent restaurants are having a harder time because menus may change daily and a complete menu analysis can cost as much as $50,000.

But, their foods can still be prepared with less fat, salt and sugar; more fruits and vegetables can be used as add-ons; and low calorie/no calorie drink options. Portions of everything, from drinks to desserts, can be made smaller. No one needs a 26-ounce porterhouse or a 32-ounce soda. Even without exact numbers, these changes would impact on better nutrition and lower calorie intakes.

Companies are making changes. Subway, a sandwich chain, advertises lower fat sandwiches and a “regular customer” who lost over 100 pounds eating at their stores. Fast food giants like McDonalds and Wendy’s are adding fruit sides, more salads, and lowfat milk to their menu boards. “Fresh is best” and “grilled is better” are common themes for new items. Chains such as Season 52 have dedicated their entire menu to healthier choices. Companies are selling snacks in 100-calorie packs, teaching us portion-control. And, entire vending machines are devoted to water.

The biggest question of all: Do Americans really want to eat better?

Nobody knows for sure. We say we want healthier food choices in restaurants, but among the top 10 menu choices are: French fries, burgers, pizza, chicken nuggets, and diet soda. Do people think that if they order a diet soda they have license to indulge in other items? When provided with “healthy” choices, many steer clear. They equate less fat, less salt, or fewer calories with less taste.

Most people choose restaurants – fast food, ethnic or white tablecloth – based on what they want to eat and what they want to pay, not what’s good for them. People still view dining out as an opportunity for indulgence.

Health conscious people will always eat well. Getting everyone else do it is another issue. Certainly, we need to provide more public education. But, should we be teaching good nutrition in general or concentrate on calories as a specific? One can eat poorly and eat too little. And, one can eat well but eat too much.

The final choice is up to each of us. People can’t be legislated into eating right. The best to hope for right now, is the next time you go out to eat, you’ll think about this article before you order.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Half-Crazed Runner August 2, 2012 at 1:11 pm

This is a great article! Thnx.

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Singa August 18, 2015 at 12:34 am

There are many all-you-can-eat Chinese places in my city too. I heard they hire a lot of ilagell immigrants, that’s how they can keep the price so low. I think the food is ok but it’s not some place I will take visitors from Hong Kong :-)exile

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Danielle LeBaron August 9, 2016 at 5:39 pm

Great post, thank you for talking about something that truly hits home for me. I LOVE eating out; I joke that if I could I would eat out for every meal, but I also try to eat healthy, whole foods, and those two things typically do not go together.

You bring up a great point, that restaurants are starting to add the “light and fit” menus and offer more salads and fruits, but the endless refills of soda and sugar filled sauces are still a real problem.

I agree, public education is hugely important in helping people eat better, but there are some simple good practices people can follow as well. Simply teaching people how to read a menu at a restaurant will make a huge difference. For example, did you know salads (usually thought to be the safest bet) are often full of chemical preservatives, pesticides, and herbicides? Not to mention the dressings, which are usually loaded with hydrogenated oils, sugar, and chemicals. Knowing this, along with some simple tips, such as asking the waiter about the menu, can really improve the health aspect of eating out.

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