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Is Olive Garden Healthier Than McDonald’s? Maybe Not

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If you're trying to be healthy, sitting down for a meal at a full-service restaurant like Olive Garden is a better option than pulling up to the nearest McDonald's to grab a Big Mac. Right?

Wrong. In a new study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, researchers from Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania studied more than 2,600 menu items at full-service restaurant chains like Olive Garden, Red Lobster and T.G.I Friday’s and concluded that the sit-down spots exceed the recommended calories, sodium, and saturated fat for a single meal. To help diners better understand what they are eating, the researchers are calling for more nutritional information on each menu item, and standardized definitions of options that are classified as healthy.

Over half of the menus the team analyzed classified some specific options as “healthy” choices, but the criteria used for these foods varied from restaurant to restaurant. Federal guidelines recommend adults eat around 2,000 calories daily and children consume around 1,400 calories. The researchers found that meals with an adult entree, side dish, and a shared appetizer averaged around 1,495 calories, with 28 g of saturated fat, 3,312 mg of sodium, and 11 g of fiber. If a drink or dessert were added, the total tipped 2,000 calories. While the items catering to senior patrons and kids had fewer calories, they still remained high in sodium.

“Consumers tend to view full-service restaurants as superior in quality and healthfulness compared with quick service restaurants. However, a few studies contrasted nutritional values by restaurant types and found much higher calories and nutrients at full-service restaurants,” the study authors write. And this study even found that there were relatively few “healthy choice” options on the menus.

But will educating consumers by providing more nutritional information actually help patrons eat healthier? The evidence is not so clear. Studies haven’t shown definitively that having information such as calorie counts available for customers changes what they choose to eat.

Keri Gans, a registered dietitian and author of The Small Change Diet who was not affiliated with the study hopes that the findings will encourage restaurants to be more proactive in offering more healthy options, and applying stricter criteria to these items so health-conscious diners can benefit from them. That’s already happening in the fast food industry, as a February 2013 study showed that over five years, fast food chains have incorporated more lower-calorie and healthy options, serving 472 billion lower-calorie foods and beverages and 13 billion fewer servings of higher calorie fare like greasy french fries. Even Burger King unveiled lower calorie fries last year. Eventually, public health experts hope, such accessibility to better-for-you options will change what Americans eat.

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