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Restaurant Chains Will Cost You More Calories Than Fast Food

McDonald's isn't looking so bad, based on two new studies.

Fast food is often dubbed the unhealthiest food out there. Some of the meals and side dishes at quick service restaurants can cost you the equivalent of a day's-worth of calories, sodium, fat, and cholesterol. However, two studies—one U.K.-based and another stateside—recently brought another truth to light: Popular restaurant chains often serve entrees that cost you even more calories and saturated fat.

So, how did these studies work?

The first study—called (Over)eating Out a Major U.K. Restaurant Chains—analyzed the calories in nearly 13,400 entrees served among 27 U.K. restaurant chains. Of the restaurants analyzed, 21 were full-service, while the remaining six were fast food. The researchers' goal was to find out the caloric intake of each meal. They sought to deduce the proportion of meals that meet the daily public health recommendation (under 600 calories), and the proportion that exceed it (over 1,000 calories).

The other study—called Measured Energy Content of Frequently Purchased Restaurant Mealswas conducted by the U.S., but measured calories in the most frequently ordered meals in 116 restaurants among five countries: Brazil, China, Finland, Ghana, and India. Researchers took these calorie counts and compared them with those restaurant chains in the United States.

And what did they find?

The average calorie content of the restaurant meals in the U.K. was 977. The percentage of meals that met public health recommendations was 9 percent, while 47 percent were measuring an excessive energy content. Actually, when compared with fast food restaurants, full-service restaurants' entrees were more excessively caloric and fewer main meals met public health recommendations.

In terms of the U.S.'s five-country study, the calorie counts in restaurant chain dishes in Brazil, Finland, Ghana, and India proved to have more calories than those in the U.S. The meals in China were the only ones to fall significantly below U.S. numbers—the average main meal served in full-service restaurants in China had 1,045 calories, while the average entree in U.S. restaurants has 1,362 calories. China also fell below U.S. in fast food calories as well: 561 vs. 969.

The international study demonstrated that the average main meal served in fast food chains amounted to 809 calories, as compared to 1,317 calories for those served in full-service restaurants. These figures are similar to what the U.K. study found as well—the average main meal at a U.K. fast food chain had 751 calories, compared to 1,033 on average for an entree at a full-service U.K. restaurant.

So, is McDonald's better for you than Cheesecake Factory?

Both studies found that fast food contained, on average, one-third less calories than main meals in full-service restaurants. A small number of meals analyzed globally met the daily recommendation, while 94 percent of full-service dishes and 72 percent of fast food dishes exceeded the limit. In conclusion, the two studies confirmed that meals served in popular sit-down restaurant chains (worldwide) cost you more calories and are worse for your health than swinging through a drive-thru. Of course, it all depends on what you order and how much you eat, since restaurant quantities are typically much larger than fast food meals. And for more healthy options at fast food chains, check out 20 Surprisingly Healthy Fast Food Orders.

Cheyenne Buckingham
Cheyenne Buckingham is the former news editor of Eat This, Not That! Read more about Cheyenne