If you eschew fast food but relish restaurants, you might think you’re doing your body a favor. But recent research published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that in a lot of ways, eating out is even worse than driving-thru.
“People mainly focus on fast food and want to beat this animal to death,” study author Ruopeng An, assistant professor in the department of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign told TIME. As a result, the nutritional details of non-chain restaurants haven’t been as big of a research area.
So An used dietary recall data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2003-2010 to analyze what people were eating and where. In the dataset, almost 19,000 adults provided self-reports of everything they ate for two days.
This study—and many others before it—found that eating at fast-food restaurants and full-service restaurants is worse for you than eating at home. Both types of establishments were associated with a daily increase in calories, fat, saturated fat and sodium. Eating at fast-food restaurants was associated with an extra 190 calories a day, while eating at full-service restaurants was linked to an extra 187 calories per day. Fat was packed on at about the same daily rate: an extra 10 or so grams.
But in an interesting twist, eating at full-service restaurants added even more sodium and cholesterol than fast food did. Restaurants were linked to an extra 58 mg of cholesterol each day, while eating fast food only added an extra 10 mg. And while fast food added 297 mg sodium to a person’s daily intake, restaurants shoveled on an additional 412 mg.
The study also found that takeout might be better for you than dining in. When An compared the practice of eating restaurant food at home—as in takeout or delivery—to eating restaurant food on site, he found a rise in calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium for dining in. People ate an additional 200 daily calories when they ate in a restaurant, but that increase was only 121 calories when they ate restaurant food at home. (Nutritionally, it didn’t make a difference where fast food was eaten.)
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Why? When people eat out at restaurants, “they have more time, it’s more relaxing, it’s more like a social event, so they’re less cautious about overeating,” An explained.
But An also found some good news for restaurant-philes: eating at restaurants, compared to eating fast food, was associated with an increase in omega-3s, vitamin B6, vitamin E, magnesium, potassium and zinc, plus a reduction in sugar. “From that perspective, consumption in full-service restaurants isn’t all bad,” he said.
An said he hopes the results will encourage more people to cook, but he’s realistic—we’re not going to stop going to restaurants. “You’re not obligated to eat the whole portion served to you,” he reminded restaurant-goers. “You can always bring some of the food home for tomorrow.”
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