Checkout the Menu Before You Leave Home


According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s fast food surveys, the amount of calories consumed from eating out increased from 18 to 32 percent from 1977 to 19961. As this and several other studies have shown, our eating practices are increasingly relying on dinning out. Going out to eat is convenient, fun, and pleasing to our taste buds.

But when you go to your favorite fast food chain, do you know the nutritional value of what you’re eating? Many of the foods offered by full-service and fast food establishments are bad for your health. So in order make healthy food choices it’s essential to know the nutritional facts of the food you eat at restaurants. The nutritional data for most major restaurant menus is easily accessible, if you know where to look.

 Recent Developments in Nutrition Transparency

As a society, there was a time when the nutritional value of what we ate didn’t enter our minds. But within the past decade, countless studies have demonstrated that fast food is a major contributor to high obesity numbers in America2. As a result, our society has made some important advances in raising awareness of unhealthy foods in restaurants, especially fast food chains.

The most recent progress on this front came on March 23, 2010, when the President signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. This law requires restaurants with 20 or more chain establishments to put the caloric content of regular food items directly on their menus3. The FDA is still fine-tuning these regulations so you may not see restaurants making these menu changes until 2012 or 2013. But this is a huge step forward in allowing you to make informed, healthy food choices.

Unfortunately, the new law doesn’t apply to mom-and-pop restaurants and fast food chains with less than 20 establishments. So you want to be careful when ordering from local restaurants and small fast food chains. In these situations, you need to do further research on the type of restaurant and the kind of food offered. Also, many fast food nutrition websites will inform you of the nutritional value of small restaurant chains.

Regardless of its shortcomings, when the new law takes effect, you should take advantage of this breakthrough in nutritional transparency. This is an important advance in diet awareness because many fast food restaurants offer meals with calorie levels far exceeding what you need per meal. One popular sit-down restaurant offers a chicken entrée that is a staggering 1080 calories and 56 grams of fat. That’s just about half of your recommended daily caloric intake. That’s why menu research is so important. Knowing the amount of calories you should be getting with every meal will help you make wiser choices when eating out.

To help you identify the amount of calories you should eat per meal, here are the recommendations from the Department of Health and Human Services. Depending on body frame, age, and lifestyle, the daily calorie intake should range from 1500 to 2400 calories for an adult woman and 2000 to 3000 calories for an adult man4. Only 20 to 30 percent of these calories should come from fat. Based on a 2000 calories diet you should consume about 44 to 78 grams of fat per day. On three meals a day, that equals out to roughly 670 calories and 15 to 26 grams of fat per meal, not including snacks.

Where to Find Detailed Menu Information

It’s important to note that the new menu law only requires restaurants to publish the caloric content of their food items. Yet, there are other nutritional factors that influence your health like fat, sodium, and sugar levels. To find a more complete account of the nutritional value of restaurant menus, the internet is your best resource. Almost all major restaurants and fast food chains have a detailed online nutritional guide to their menu. You can also find websites that offer side-by-side comparisons of different restaurant menus so that you can evaluate which restaurant has the best options to suit your taste and diet. These charts usually list the food item and its fat, sodium, sugar, and caloric values, among other things.

Not only will the nutritional guide inform you of the nutrition data for the meal itself, it will also give you the dietary information on side items, dressings, toppings, and condiments so that you can know the total health effect of everything in your meal. When you just focus on the nutritional content of the main food items, you overlook the added calories that come with your sides, drink, condiments, dressings, sauces, and dessert. So make sure you add up the nutritional value of everything in your meal.

The information on these food charts will be based on serving size. But the amount of food you usually get in the restaurant may be larger than the serving size listed on the restaurant’s nutritional guide. So you may actually be getting slightly more food and thus more calories than the serving size suggests. Also, take into account that “super sizing” your fast food meals will significantly increase the meal’s potion size.

It only takes a few minutes to do some menu research. In the grand scheme of things, making better food choices from menu research will save you time and money, as well as improve your quality of life. If knowledge is power, then having done your homework you will be empowered to make healthy food choices when eating out.


Stewart, H., Blisard, N., & Jolliffe, D. (2006). Let’s Eat Out: Americans Weigh Taste, Convenience, and Nutrition.Washington,DC:U.S.Department of Agriculture.

2 Currie, J., DellaVigna, S., Moretti, E., & Pathania, V. (2010). The Effect of Fast Food Restaurants on Obesity and Weight Gain. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, American Economic Association, 32-63.

New Menu and Vending Machines Labeling Requirements. (2011, June 9). Retrieved from U.S. Food and Drug Administration: www.fda.gov/Food/LabelingNutrition/ucm217762.htm

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2010). Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010.Washington,DC:U.S. Government Printing Office.


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