LOS ANGELES — Plenty of restaurants advertise their efforts to offer healthful choices, and it's possible to eat carefully just about anywhere. But researchers say nearly all the entrees they reviewed at 245 U.S. chains fail to meet federal guidelines.
Think about it, and you can figure out some likely culprits: burgers with cheese, bacon and sauce; pastas with four cheeses and sausages; outsize servings of meat; salads covered in fatty, salty dressings.
For a study published online in the journal Public Health Nutrition, researchers looked online at the nutritional content of 30,923 menu items, including those from children's menus, from 245 brands of restaurants from February to May 2010. They found that 96 percent of them failed to meet recommendations for the combination of calories, sodium, fat and saturated fat set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The restaurants included fast-food, buffet, takeout, family-style and upscale restaurants, said Helen Wu, one of the authors and an assistant policy analyst at the RAND Corp. The study was supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The majority of the entrees did not exceed 667 calories — one-third of the calories the USDA estimates the average adult needs each day, said Wu and Roland Sturm, senior economist at RAND. But few of the entrees met recommended limits when considering calories, sodium, saturated fat and fat combined.
"Many items may appear healthy based on calories, but actually can be very unhealthy when you consider other important nutrition criteria," Wu said.
The sodium count often put a restaurant over the limit. (The USDA's daily recommended limit for most adults is 2,300 milligrams.)
Wu and Sturm also discovered that appetizers have more calories, fat, saturated fat and sodium than all other types of menu items. From the sample studied, appetizers had an average of 813 calories. Chicken wings with dip were a big culprit.