If you've been trying to lose body weight/fat -or even just trying to maintain a healthy level - there's a fair chance you've found deciding what to choose when eating out to be a tough endeavour. Even those familiar with tracking calories can be left scratching their heads; giving their best estimation of the caloric content of a meal - a method that can be grossly inaccurate. Two recent studies set out to determine the average caloric content of the most popular meals across the world and in the UK. Their findings were startling. On average, fast food restaurants were lower in caloric content per main meal compared to full-service (conventional) restaurants!
Fast foods restaurants had an average caloric intake of 809 kcal and full-service restaurants had an average of 1317 kcal per main meal.
The studies sampled main meals from countries including the US, China, Ghana, Brazil, India, Finland, and the UK. In both studies, restaurants were categorised into "fast food" (ordered over a counter and consumed on or off the premise) or "full service" (order by waiter and consumed on the premise) and sampled the nutritional content of the main meal(s) (1, 2). They defined a main meal as a meal that only came with what was paid for with that meal alone, and therefore did not include any additional starters, desserts, drinks, sides etc. From the samples gathered from the US, China, Ghana, Brazil, India, and Finland, they found fast foods restaurants had an average caloric intake of 809 kcal and full-service restaurants had an average of 1317 kcal per main meal (1). It was found fast-food restaurant meals sampled in the UK had an average of 751 kcal, while full-service restaurant meals had an average of 1033 kcal (2). To put that into perspective, the UK NHS advises most females should consume no more than 1400 kcal and men 1900 kcal to lose body weight/fat at a safe rate (3). Consequently, one meal can be a significant portion of your daily energy intake requirements!
The researchers believe the reason for fast food chains having a lower average caloric content per meal is due to the criticism they have received in the media.
The researchers believe the reason for fast food chains having a lower average caloric content per meal is due to the criticism they have received in the media for their stereotypically low nutritional quality, high-energy content meals. This has placed pressure on fast food chains to change their menus to be more 'health-conscious,' which brings about adjustments to their recipes to reduce the caloric content of meals (2). Fast food and large full-service restaurants chains also tend to provide the nutritional information of their meals on their menus or online, which also can also add pressure to reduce the caloric content of many meals. This also makes it very convenient for those trying to lose body weight/fat to be more aware and selective of their meals while eating out.
If you decide to eat out, there's nothing wrong with it, but be wary of the caloric content of the meal and always try to choose a restaurant that has the nutritional info of their meals available. If you can't for any reason, it's wise to assume an average caloric content of at least 750 kcal for a main meal alone in a fast-food restaurant, and up to 1300 kcal for full-service restaurants. Keep in mind, this shouldn't include any starters, sides, desserts, and calorically sweetened beverages (i.e. regular soft drinks), and meals can still vary significantly in caloric content. If you're trying to lose body fat, always try to make a sensible decision. It's also always better to over-estimate the caloric content of meals and play it cautious.
- Roberts, S.B., Das, S.K., Suen, V.M., Pihlajamäki, J., Kuriyan, R., Steiner-Asiedu, M., Taetzsch, A., Anderson, A.K., Silver, R.E., Barger, K., Krauss, A., Karhunen, L., Zhang, X., Hambly, C., Schwab, U., Triffoni-Melo, A., Fassini, P., Taylor, S., Economos, C., Kurpad, A., Speakman, J.R., Measured energy content of frequently purchased restaurant meals: multi-country cross sectional study, BMJ 2018;363:k4864
- Robinson, E., Jones, A., Whitelock, V., Mead, B.R., & Haynes, A., (Over)eating out at major UK restaurant chains: observational study of energy content of main meals, BMJ 2018;363:k4982
- NHS Choices. Start the NHS weight loss plan. 2015. https://web.archive.org/web/20180511083938/https://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/weight-loss-guide/Pages/losing-weight-getting-started.aspx.