01/09/2014 08:56 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

When It Comes To Nutrition, Chain Restaurant Meals Still Leave A Lot To Be Desired


Fast food gets a bad rap when it comes to health and nutrition. But is the food at full-service chain restaurants any better?

A new study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior shows that the entrees at some of the most popular chain restaurants leave much to be desired in the nutrition department, with many entrees being too high in sodium and too low in fiber.

The findings fall in line with those of a previous study last year in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which showed that average calories and sodium in U.S. chain restaurant meals has stayed largely the same, despite additions of "healthier" menu options, between 2010 and 2011. The same researchers, from RAND Corp. and the Institute for Population Health Improvement at UC Davis Health System, had found in a previous study that nearly all chain restaurant entrees don't follow recommendations for saturated fat and sodium from the USDA.

"The need to educate customers about the nutritional content of restaurant foods is acute because consumers increasingly eat away from home, restaurants serve large portions of energy-dense and high-sodium foods, and obesity and the prevalence of other diet-related diseases are high," study researcher Amy Auchincloss, Ph.D., M.P.H., of the Drexel University School of Public Health, said in a statement.

Eating out is ingrained in American culture: Four out of five Americans eat fast food at least once a month, according to a recent Gallup poll, and a survey from the North American Restaurant Consumer Sentiment Review showed that more than half of people said they eat out once a week, at the least.

For the new study, Auchincloss and her colleagues examined the nutrition of 21 full-service chain restaurants in the Philadelphia area between March and May 2011. In order to be included in the study, all menu items at the restaurants had to have sodium and calorie information available either online or on the restaurant menus.

The restaurants were split up into three categories (lower-priced, mid-priced and higher-priced) based on the cost of the entrees. Lower-priced restaurants, where entrees were generally between $6 and $9, included Denny's, Friendly's, IHOP, Perkins Restaurant & Bakery and Pizza Hut. Mid-priced restaurants, where entrees were generally between $10 and $16, included Applebee's, California Pizza Kitchen, Hard Rock Cafe, Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Ruby Tuesday and TGI Friday's, among others. Higher-priced restaurants, where entrees were generally between $25 or more, included The Capital Grille and Morton's, The Steakhouse.

"Chains dominate the full-service restaurant industry, capturing 70 percent of market share, and their ubiquity in the U.S. points to their potential contribution to dietary intake," researchers wrote in the study. "Although this study's sample of restaurants does not necessarily represent nutritional values in all full-service chains, the companies in this sample owned or operated over 12,000 outlets and reported sales exceeding $30 billion in 2010."

Researchers examined how well the menu items at these restaurants abided by the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for calories, saturated fat, total fat, fiber and sodium. If a menu item abided by the guidelines, it was considered a "healthier" option. Because "no guidelines exist for appropriate nutrient levels for full-service restaurant menu items … this study had to define its own criteria using thresholds that resembled those used by others and were based on US dietary patterns for dinner meals," researchers wrote in the study.

They found that the average entree at the observed restaurants had 800 calories, and about half did not meet the criteria to be deemed a "healthier" option. In addition, researchers found:

- Nearly one-third of a la carte entrees and appetizers had sodium and saturated fat levels higher than the daily recommended amount. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, people should consume fewer than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day (1,500 milligrams of sodium a day for people age 51 and older, African Americans, children, and people with certain chronic conditions), and saturated fats should make up less than 10 percent of calories.
- Only one-fifth of menu items had the minimum recommended daily amount of fiber.
- A full meal -- including an adult entree, side dish and shared appetizer -- had 1,495 calories, as well as 28 grams of saturated fat, 3,312 milligrams of sodium and just 11 grams of fiber. Adding on a nonalcoholic drink and a shared dessert brought the calorie count up to 2,020, the saturated fat level up to 39 grams, the sodium level up to 3,760 milligrams and the fiber level up to 12 grams.
- Menu items targeted to seniors had fewer calories than other entrees, but still had sodium and saturated fat levels that exceeded daily recommended intake.
- Kids' meals were better, "with 31 percent and 70 percent exceeding healthier calorie and sodium DRVs [daily recommended values], respectively," researchers wrote in the study.
- The items at lower-priced and mid-priced restaurants generally had more sodium, but less saturated fat, than those at higher-priced restaurants.

Restaurants could stand to benefit by offering healthier options. A recent study from the Hudson Institute showed that restaurant chains that introduced lower-calorie menu options had better sales figures and more restaurant visits than those that didn't.