But when Americans go out to eat, they consume more calories, salt, cholesterol and fat than when they prepare their meals at home, according to a report published last week in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
And full-service restaurants are not necessarily better than fast-food joints. In fact, Ruopeng An, the report's author, found that patrons of sit-down restaurants actually consumed more cholesterol and salt than those who ate fast food.
“It’s likely that people consider full-service restaurants to be healthier,” says An, a scientist at University of Illinois, “so they may be less likely to make informed decisions there.”
In some ways, the food consumed at restaurants was healthier: restaurant meals contained more beneficial nutrients than fast food, like vitamins, potassium and omega-3 fatty acids.
But these benefits may be undermined by the drawback that people dining at any establishment consumed about 10% more calories and salt than those eating at home.
Going out is usually a social activity that takes a long time. An thinks this may be one factor that encourages overeating at restaurants.
The new report is based on data collected between 2003 and 2010 through the federally-funded National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a project of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Approximately 18,000 American adults were asked to recall everything they ate during two separate 24-hour windows, including where they got the food and where they ate it. An then compared how much the same individuals ate when they were at home, versus at a restaurant.
But dining out may be healthy in ways that were not considered in the study. Linda Bacon, a Bay Area-based nutrition researcher and the author of the books "Body Respect" and "Health at Every Size," says enjoying the food and company matters.
“You can’t just reduce food to nutrients,” she says. “We have to take into account a much bigger picture than what people are eating if we really want to understand the effect that food is having on them.”
Bacon also cautions against using surveys to draw broad conclusions about health and diet, because people are notoriously inaccurate at self-reporting what they eat.
“I would encourage people to move away from this fear-based idea of thinking that certain ways of eating are good and others are bad,” she says. “You should end up eating well because you want to and it helps you feel better. That’s much more sustainable.”