While chain restaurants have added healthier entrees, their menus’ overall calorie and sodium counts haven’t budged.
“Across the restaurant industry, we see a pattern of one step forward, one step back,” said Helen Wu, policy and research analyst at the Institute for Population Health Improvement at UC Davis Health System.
“Restaurants make changes to their menus regularly, but they may make both healthy and unhealthy changes simultaneously.”
Wu Roland Sturm, senior economist at the RAND Corp., examined 26,000 entrees in a year from 213 chain restaurants. Their study was published Tuesday in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
In 2010, the average entrée contained 670 calories. A year later: 670 calories. Sodium levels dropped from 1,515 to 1,500 milligrams per entrée.
The researchers also found no changes in calories when they zoomed in on entrees that were added or changed between 2010 and 2011.
At family-style restaurants, new menu items at the 75th percentile — those with higher sodium levels to start — were 70 mg lower in sodium in 2011, but still too high in sodium for anyone watching their sodium intake.
Children’s entrees did not become healthier during the period studied. Fast-food restaurant entrees for kids were 40 calories lower, on average, however.
The study looked at menu changes in the year following passage of a federal menu-labeling mandate passed as part of the Affordable Care Act. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to issue final regulations directing restaurant to post calorie information on menus, though some restaurants have done so.
Wu said that once those regulations are put into place, it menus may begin to improve.
For now, though, “Consumers need to be aware that when they step into a restaurant, they are playing a high-stakes game with their health by making dietary choices from menus that are loaded with high-calorie, high-sodium options.”
This new study is a follow-up to a 2012 study by the same researchers. It found 96 percent of entrees by top U.S. chain restaurants failed to meet daily limits for calories, sodium, fat and saturated fat recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Americans consume about one-third of their total calories and spend half of their food budget eating away from home, according to UCD.
— Reach Cory Golden at firstname.lastname@example.org or (530) 747-8046. Follow him on Twitter at @cory_golden.