Counting calories: UK restaurant meals often contain more calories than fast-food meals, study finds

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13 Dec 2018 --- The average calorie content of a restaurant meal in the UK is 977 kcal, with meals offered by full-service restaurants delivering 268 kcal more than the average fast-food option, a University of Liverpool study has found. With 39 percent of UK adults eating out at least once a week – according to a UK Food Standards Agency 2016 report – the health focused spotlight on energy content may now require a shift from fast-food to sit-down restaurants chains.

Published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), the researchers analyzed the calorie content of 13,500 main meals served at 27 large UK restaurant chains – 21 full-service and six fast-food. The fast food restaurants included Burger King, Leon, McDonald’s and Subway, while the full-service restaurants included All Bar One, Bill’s, Toby Carvery, Wagamama, Zizzi, Nando’s and Pizza Express. 

“Only one in ten of the meals we surveyed could be considered a healthy number of calories. Although some of the results are shocking, our findings probably underestimate the number of calories consumed in restaurants because our analysis did not include drinks, starters, desserts or side orders,” says Dr. Eric Robertson of the University of Liverpool’s Department of Psychological Science.

The researchers used the available online information to search for the calorie content of the meals.

The findings demonstrate that only 9 percent of the meals surveyed fell in line with Public Health England’s (PHE) recommendations for main meal energy consumption, which stands at 600 calories or below. The average meal’s calorie content was 977 kcal and meals from full-service restaurants had 268 kcal Click to EnlargeOnly 9 percent of the meals surveyed fell in line with Public Health England’s (PHE) recommendations for main meal energy consumption.more than those from fast food restaurants, on average

Burger meals, which typically include fries, in restaurants had an average of 414 kcal more energy than those in fast food restaurants, while restaurant salad calories totaled 142 kcal higher than fast-food meals.

The reason why main meals in full-service restaurants tended to be higher in energy than those in fast food restaurants is unclear, but multiple factors are likely to be involved, including the type of food sold, the researchers say.

The difference could be down to decisions about portion size, energy density of ingredients and cooking methods, speculate the researchers.

A further explanation is that the negative press received by the fast food sector because of the poor nutritional quality of products may have caused chains in this sector to offer lower energy meal options or to reformulate existing products to reduce energy content. The full-service restaurant sector does not seem to have experienced similar pressures, the researchers also add.

In this vein, characterizing the nutritional quality of other parts of the UK food environment will be important, the researchers say, as this study did not examine nutritional quality of other market sectors, such as coffee shops or online food ordering.

Online services that allow consumers to have restaurant food delivered to their home are a recent development in the UK and will likely be increasing the number of meals consumed that are prepared out of the home.

Cutting consumer caloric intake
“With eating out now the norm, consumers want healthier food with less sugar and calories. From cafes to the big high street chains, everyone has a role to play in helping combat obesity,” says Louis Levy, Head of Nutrition Science at PHE, in response to the findings.

As consumers become more concerned with watching their weight and limiting what they eat, communicating the proper information regarding food for sale, its calorie levels and what ingredients it contains, is important.

This research also comes as the year of “Mindful Choices” – tipped at the top trend for 2018 by Innova Market Insights – comes to an end. The increasingly thoughtful and mindful consumer is continuing to catalyze changes in the way that companies produce, package and label their products. The other element driving the “mindful choice” trend is about peace of mind while making a positive impact in the world, through ethical claims.

Earlier this year, PHE and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) unveiled a new plan to help people cut excessive calories from their diets, as part of the government’s strategy to curb childhood and adult obesity. The health bodies are challenging the food industry to reduce calories in products consumed by families by 20 percent by 2024.

By launching the latest One You campaign, the health bodies are encouraging adults to consume 400 calories at breakfast, and 600 for lunch and dinner. They had said at the time that UK adults are consuming 200 to 300 calories in excess each day; however, this study alludes that the amounts could be higher if people are eating out more often. Click to EnlargeThe clearer labeling of products has been cited as a method to address overweight and obesity.

Lobby groups have long flagged products that deliver too highly on the salt and sugar scale, for example, and lobbied for change and clearer labeling.

According to a study by consumer watchdog Behind the Label, UK consumers often consume more than a kilo of sugar a week – 238 teaspoons – much of which is from unknown sources. 

Sugar can sneak into products without consumers taking notice. A recent survey published in the BMJ highlighted that fewer than 9 percent of products surveyed contained less than the 5g of sugar per 100 grams threshold required to be classed “low sugar” and carry a green “traffic light” nutritional label in the UK.

In the US, for example, the Food & Drug Administration’s menu labeling rules officially took effect in May, requiring chain restaurants, coffeehouses and other eateries to list how many calories are in the foods on offer. 

Although the idea behind the new rules is to help Americans make informed decisions about the foods they eat, there is still debate around whether menu labeling will benefit consumers’ health. 

In the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, for example, researchers from New York University have noted that despite the rapid and widespread adoption of policies to require calorie counts at restaurants, most studies of calorie labels in fast-food restaurants in places that have already adopted labeling, including New York, have found little evidence that fast-food consumers are changing their behaviors in response to the labels. 

On the other hand, research from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania suggested in 2016 that adding color-coded or numeric calorie labels to online food ordering systems can help reduce the total calories ordered by about 10 percent when compared to menus featuring no calorie information at all. 

In the UK, a Diabetes UK poll found that three-quarters of the public would like to see all cafes, restaurants and takeaway outlets display calorie information on their menus. According to the University of Liverpool study, the government is currently consulting on a plan to introduce mandatory labeling in restaurants, takeaways and cafes, which is likely to finish in the new year.

As consumer eating patterns become both healthier and more “out of home,” full-service restaurants could either adapt their menu options to be lower calorie or smaller portioned and provide full energy information for consumers to make informed choices.

By Laxmi Haigh

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