With so many options for dining out, it’s not hard to understand why so many Americans young and old are choosing to forego sweating over the stove in favor deciding between booth or table.
Unfortunately, dining out has a cost that is as significant to health as it is to the wallet. A recent study published in The Journal of Nutrition outlined the effects of eating out, with 70% of fast food meals being of poor nutritional value and half of all full service restaurant meals falling into the same category.
In an era where diet related illness is incredibly common through conditions such as type 2 diabetes, the nutritional value of the meals we eat is vitally important to health, particularly among older adults, whose health may involve multiple conditions or increased risk for the development of chronic conditions.
Why is Dining Out Bad?
Eating at restaurants is certainly tasty, but the food a restaurant chef makes doesn’t get that way by chance. It gets there through ingredients and technique and more often than not, those ingredients are not healthy.
For example, when it comes to something like beef, chefs tend to favor cuts that are extremely fatty as these increase the amount of flavor you’ll get from the beef. Where what you might find at the store is 85-90% lean beef, restaurant will use cuts that have double the amount of fat.
Our pallet is trained to like things that are salty or sugary, and restaurants often play on those senses, adding condiments and rich sauces to dishes to give them complexity. Sauces may contain a fair amount of cream or butter, adding to the overall fat content of the dish in unhealthy ways. That’s on top of the grease used to cook with in the first place, be it lard, butter or oils.
Portion sizes are often out of control at restaurants and in order to provide the volume of food they do, restaurants typically skimp on vegetables and healthy foods that have a higher cost in favor of cheap grains such as pasta and bread which contain a great deal of sugar and ingredients with high fat and salt content.
Can You Dine Out and Be Healthy?
A study published in the American Journal of Public Health highlighted the ongoing issue of how restaurants feed customers excessive quantities of sparsely nutritional food. It looked at how to potentially solve nutritional problems at restaurants and one of the solutions was a decrease in portion sizes. When researchers simulated this approach, most consumers found the change acceptable, and restaurateurs would not experience any substantial loss of profits in the long term.
Many people lack the ability to determine appropriate portion sizes, despite the fact a significant percentage of the population is, in fact, trying to control its caloric intake.
With all this said, it’s not as if you have to give up dining out completely in favor preparing all of your own food. You can still dine out, but just follow a few guiding principles that will help you avoid the pitfalls that are common in restaurant food. Things like:
- Look for colorful dishes- an assortment of vegetables can help the overall health content of your dish or serve as a valuable substitute to unhealthy side dishes
- Skip the appetizer- appetizers are added calories that can amount to a meal themselves. They are often fried or covered in rich sauces, meaning you can probably do without them
- Get it on the side- anything involving fat, be it butter, dressings, barbeque sauce or other items that add a lot of calories should come on the side, that way you control how much of it you eat
- Halve your portions- if the restaurant won’t cut your portion sizes in half, you can always do it yourself by simply getting half the portion in a to go box before you start eating.
Dining out doesn’t have to be the unhealthy habit it’s become. With a little bit of self-discipline and knowledge of the food’s ingredients and techniques of preparation, you can be sure to choose meals that support a healthier lifestyle and prevent poor health outcomes as you age.