Space & Innovation

Restaurant Meals Tip Scales

About 92 percent of meals at local and chain restaurants tip the caloric scales, sometimes giving diners more food than they should eat all day.

Critics have attacked chain restaurants for years, complaining about high-fat, high-calorie meals turning America into a nation of artery-clogged fatties. But a new study has found that local mom-and-pop restaurants aren't much better.

In 123 restaurants in Boston, Little Rock, Ark., and San Francisco, the research team found that a single meal serving, without beverages, appetizers or desserts sometimes exceeded the caloric requirements for an entire day.

The study was conducted by Tufts University researchers who analyzed the calorie content of frequently ordered meals in both local restaurants and their large-chain equivalents in three separate locations. The data were collected between 2011 and 2014 by comparing the meals against human calorie requirements and USDA food database values. The cuisine studied by researchers included American, Chinese, Greek, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Thai and Vietnamese fare.

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The study, which appears today in the Journal of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietitics, also found that American, Chinese and Italian had the highest calorie counts with a mean of 1,495 calories per meal.

Susan Roberts, lead author of the study and director of the director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at Tufts, said she decided to do the study after she was struggling with her own weight issues and decided to test the caloric content of some of the restaurant meals she was eating.

"This started when I was 50 pounds overweight and I was eating in Chinatown," Roberts said. "I said I'm going to take some of those containers back to the lab. We couldn't find any listings in the USDA food database for kung pao chicken or lasagna. They are just guessing."

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To get a handle on how many calories are in restaurant meals, the team ordered food to go, packed it in freezer bags and dry ice, and then shipped the containers to Boston. There, the team blended, froze and turned the food into a powder which could be analyzed in a laboratory using a "bomb calorimeter" to determine the calories.

Roberts says that humans are hard-wired to pig out, even when they don't need the food to survive.

There's a well-defined biology of over-eating that has nothing to do with willpower," Roberts said. "When faced with a large plate, we experience a huge neurological surge which activates in real biology hunger. You get a surge of insulin, which drops your blood sugar. A few minutes after standing in the line for a coffee, then you end up buying two donuts. It's your neurological reflexes. Those same reflexes relax your stomach muscles so you have a bigger stomach. All these mechanisms are pure biology."

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Roberts and her colleagues believe that restaurants offer way more food than needed because they are afraid that some people will walk away complaining about not enough. The group says they are advocating for "proportional pricing" at restaurants so that people who order and eat less, pay less.

"If I as a small woman walked into a restaurant and said ‘I want a third of a portion,'" Roberts said, "they would give me a third portion and I would pay a third of the cost. Restaurants would hate this at the beginning. But they would do it."

Christin Fernandez, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association, says that diners have choices when they eat out. They are also providing people with more information about caloric content of foods.

"Obesity in America is a complex issue that must be approached at a holistic level," Fernandez said in a statement. "The industry has been making significant strides in providing consumers with an increased choice in healthful menu options. With over one million restaurants nationwide, consumer response and confidence is a top priority. Eighty five percent of American adults say there are more healthy options at restaurants than compared to just two years ago. Through our Kids LiveWell nutrition program and our work on supporting the FDA's national menu labeling standard for chain restaurants, the National Restaurant Association is working to move the industry forward as a whole to help empower consumers to make nutritious choices when dining out."

Extreme weather events, financial collapse, political unrest: With today's overabundance of apocalyptic worry, now is a good time to start thinking about what you’ll do if and when the bottom falls out. In a survival situation, shelter, fire and clean drinking water should be your top priorities, said Tom Brown, founder of Tom Brown Jr.'s Tracking, Nature and Wilderness Survival School. And, even though people can survive for up to three weeks without food, Brown said, extreme hunger can make you crazy. So it's worth stocking up on canned foods and other non-perishables. Read on to find out what else you can -- and really shouldn't -- eat when the cans run out.

DO: Pet food People end up eating pet food often enough -- and sales tend to go up during recessions -- that FDA standards require food made for animals to be suitable for humans to eat too, said Cody Lundin, founder and director of the Aboriginal Living Skills School in Prescott, Ariz. In an episode of the Discovery Channel show "Dual Survival", Lundin eats dog food cooked over a campfire -- and while he expresses hope that they'll catch raccoon for breakfast, he lived to tell the tale.

DO: Rodents It's easy to catch rats and other rodents, said Brown, author of "Tom Brown's Guide to City and Suburban Survival." Simply bury a five-gallon bucket in the ground up to its edges. Cover the mouth of the container with sticks and wood scraps, and wait for a startled mouse or chipmunk to scramble under the jumbled objects. The animal will fall right into your trap. Next, burn the hair off your prey, skin them, gut them and throw them into a stew pot with water and any grains, vegetables or flour you might have on hand. "Don't even bother filleting them or getting rid of the bones," Brown said. "Bone marrow is high in nutrition and protein."

DON'T: Leather During their infamous struggle against starvation, the Donner Party ate a wide variety of unappetizing objects, including leather, which is made from animal hides. Long ago, people used the tannins in oak tree bark to turn animal skins into leather, making it a safe food item. But modern leather products are tanned with chemicals that are surely poisonous, said Lundin, author of "When All Hell Breaks Loose: Stuff You Need to Survive When Disaster Strikes." Your belts may look as good as fruit roll-ups when you're really hungry. But it's best to leave them in the closet.

DO: Bugs Grasshoppers, cockroaches, ants, tarantulas: Virtually all insects are edible. Just make sure to cook them well enough to kill the wide variety of diseases they can carry, Brown said. You can even eat bees and scorpions as long as you remove their stingers first. One easy way to catch insects is to fill a sink with a little water and some food crumbs. Hungry bugs will go for the bait and either drown or get stuck in the tub. Ounce for ounce, Brown added, insects have up to four times more usable protein than other animals. Instead of a pound of beef, a quarter-pound grasshopper burger will do the same job.

DO: Weeds "Food plants grow everywhere," said John Kallas, director of Wild Food Adventures, an educational company, and author of "Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate." "All you need to do is go out in your backyard." You also need to build up some detailed knowledge about botany before all hell breaks loose because eating the wrong plants or the wrong parts of plants can kill you. Common vitamin-rich weeds include wild spinach, cattails, field mustard, garlic mustard, nipplewort and dandelions. No matter how hungry you are, Kallas warned, only eat a little amount of any one kind of vegetation at a time. "Dandelions have some vital chemicals that are great for you in small amounts, but too much will give diarrhea," he said. "That's what you don't want in a survival situation."

DON'T: Cardboard and Paper Cardboard boxes may seem appealing because they contain cellulose from wood pulp, which is used as a thickener, stabilizer and source of fiber in a variety of food products. And along with paper, cardboard can counter hunger pains by taking up space. But people cannot adequately digest the cellulose in cardboard and paper, Brown said. Also, many of these products are treated with chemicals that can be toxic.

DO: Acorns Like any nut, acorns can be delicious and filling, but you can't just pop them in your mouth like cashews. To make acorns edible, Brown advised, first take them out of their husks. Next, drop them in a pot of just-boiled water and let them steep for a couple hours. Drain and repeat this process two to four times until all of the bitter tannic acid is gone. At last, you can eat the acorns plain. You can roast them. Or you can grind them into flour that will accentuate your rodent stew. Play the "Dual Survival" challenge, featuring survival experts Cody Lundin and Dave Canterbury.