In the war against obesity, fast food has taken the biggest hit (for offering gigantic sodas and super-sized meals). But guess what? Your local favorite eateries are likely serving meals with even higher calorie counts, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The vast majority of meals from large-chain and local restaurants contain considerably more calories than is advised for the average person, reports senior author Susan Roberts, director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. Researchers ordered takeout from 123 restaurants in Boston, San Francisco and Little Rock, including American, Thai, Chinese, Italian, Mexican, Greek, Indian, Japanese and Vietnamese cuisines. Each meal was taken to a lab, frozen in bags then shipped to Boston for analysis.

“We found what we were expecting, which is that portion sizes are obscene,” says Roberts. The highest-calorie meals came from American, Chinese and Italian meals, which averaged 1,495 calories each (which could satiate you for almost an entire day). Overall, 92 percent of the meals far exceeded the calories advised for a single meal. In fact, there was very little difference between calorie counts in the chain vs. non-chain restaurants.

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Here’s another interesting tidbit. Another recent study found that full-service and fast-food restaurants are equally guilty of serving too many calories, but the full-service spots had one dramatic difference: They served far more sodium and cholesterol in their meals compared to fast food spots.

This year, the nation’s restaurants are required to post nutritional labels on menus so that Americans can make healthier decisions. While that strategy initially worked in New York and New Jersey, the effect faded over time with no overall consistent change in eating habits.

But that’s not our fault. Who’s got the willpower to turn down those great-smelling fajitas when they arrive at the table? That urge to splurge actually has nothing to do with willpower, Roberts explains. Rather, it’s an “overwhelming neurological response” that takes over us. We’re hungry, our blood glucose has dropped and stomach muscles are ready to enjoy the feast. “Our biology is designed to make us eat when there’s food there,” she says.

The easy solution? Eat at home more. It’s not exactly news that people who cook at home are far healthier. Also, when you’re out, splitting your meals is a great way to cut back on calories and money. There won’t be as much food on the table to tempt you. 


  1. Time: 92 percent of restaurant meals have too many calories: Study
  2. Time: Restaurant food may be less healthy than fast food