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We Eat More When We Eat Out

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Could Ronald McDonald be getting a bum rap? A new study shows that meals eaten at sit-down restaurants typically have more calories than those offered by fast-food franchises.

But that doesn’t mean dieters should rush off to the golden arches. The research also finds that people who eat restaurant meals tend to consume less food for the rest of the day, partially negating their excess caloric intake. This is far less true of those who have eaten fast-food meals.

Due to this dynamic, “fast food may ultimately result in more calories,” concludes the study, published in the Review of Agricultural Economics.

Researcher James Binkley, a professor in the department of agricultural economics at Purdue University, used data from the USDA’s 1994-96 Continuing Survey of Food Intakes. He compared meals prepared and consumed at home, at sit-down restaurants and at fast-food establishments.

He reports that home-cooked meals contain the fewest calories of the three categories — a finding that directly links Americans’ increasing reliance on food eaten away from home (which shot up from 33 percent of total food expenditures in 1970 to 47 percent in 2003) to our nation’s ever-increasing obesity rate (which rose from 15 percent among adults in 1971 to 31 percent in 2002).

Binkley attributes the fact fast-food meals have fewer calories on average to the fact they are usually ordered a la carte. Customers order precisely what they want and eat it. In contrast, at most sit-down restaurants, typical meals “are accompanied by large side servings of low-cost, high-calorie foods such as rice and pasta,” he noted. “Studies have shown that consumers tend to passively eat the entire portion of servings of various sizes.”

As a result, “larger meals are consumed at table-service than at fast-food restaurants, but less consumption at other times during the day narrows, and often reverses, the difference” in total calorie intake for the day. In other words, fast-food consumers typically will consume fewer calories at a meal, but their satiation is shorter-lasting, meaning they are more likely to snack.

Children 12 and under make up an intriguing exception: Their caloric intake was greatest on days when they ate at sit-down restaurants.

Binkley concludes that nutritionists’ emphasis on fast food as a cause for our ever-expanding waistlines is somewhat misplaced. He reports that eating food away from home in any setting tends to increase caloric intake for the day and notes that the cumulative effect of these extra calories can be quite large.

“Avoiding fast-food when dining out,” he writes, “is no assurance of avoiding extra calories.”