While most health-conscious Bostonians would probably shun a McDonald’s Big Mac and fries for a grilled tandoori chicken dish at a local Indian restaurant, they may be getting twice as many calories as a result. Tufts University researchers made that disturbing finding after analyzing 157 popular restaurant meals at area restaurants that aren’t required to post their calorie counts on the menu.
“Small restaurants that don’t report calories appear to be worst restaurants of all,” said study co-author Susan Roberts, director of the energy metabolism laboratory at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. “They make fast food look like health food.”
Roberts and her colleagues found that meals served at American or popular ethnic restaurants—like Chinese, Mexican, Greek, or Thai—contained an average of 1,327 calories, which is about two-thirds of what most Americans should eat in a day. Unlike large chain restaurants, these restaurants aren’t required by state law to list their calorie content because they don’t have at least 20 locations in the state. A similar federal law will go into effect next year.
About half the state’s restaurants are exempt from state law because they’re independent or small chain establishments.
The research, published Monday in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, found that calorie counts varied widely among the same popular dishes at different restaurants. A tandoori chicken dish served at one Indian retaurant contained 1192 calories, while the same dish served at another restaurant contained 2921 calories—more than a full day’s supply of calories. Some of that variation may be due to differing portion sizes, but Roberts said a major culprit of excess calories came from excess oil used in the preparation of the dish.
She and her nutritionist colleagues determined that Indian restaurants that marinated the chicken pieces in oil before grilling contained far more calories than those that marinated the chicken in yogurt.
“I used to tell my weight loss patients that tandoori chicken is the best option if they go out,” Roberts said, “but even if you have a PhD in nutrition, you can’t tell difference between chicken marinated in oil compared to those marinated in yogurt.”
Those watching their weight should assume that their favorite French bistro or Italian eatery will serve them calorie-laden entrees that need to be divided into half to provide them with a sensible meal. “Ask your server to box up most of it before the dish is even served,” Roberts said.
She also recommended “micromanaging” restaurant orders by asking for salads with dressing, croutons, and cheese served on the side, in order to reduce the amount of these fat-filled foods.
“Transparency is key regarding nutritional information of restaurant and prepared foods is a basic building block to improving eating habits,” wrote Dr. Mitchell Katz of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, in an editorial that accompanied the journal studies. “We cannot eat better if we don’t know what we are eating.”
While new laws requiring independent restaurants to start listing calories aren’t likely, Roberts said she’d like to see more places with a handful of healthful menu options under 500 calories. Seasons 52—a health-conscious small chain restaurant set to open its first Mass. location in Burlington later this year—doesn’t offer any menu items that are over 500 calories.
Even with transparent calorie counts, large fast-food chains still have serious nutritional drawbacks. In a 2011 analysis, Roberts found that calories listed on menus may be inaccurate varying by as much as 200 calories upwards or downwards depending on the preparation techniques and portions served. While she said this still makes them better bets for a person’s waistline than what’s offered in neighborhood cafes, fast food still typically contains an excess of fat, calories, and sodium.
Other new research published in the same issue of JAMA Internal Medicine found that fast-food restaurants have done little to reduce their sodium content. In fact, researchers from the Centers for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit nutrition activist group, found that sodium increased in restaurant meals by nearly 3 percent from 2005 to 2011.Deborah Kotz can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.