If you’re under the impression that only fast-food chains are guilty of super-sizing their meals and piling on the hidden calories, think again: The average meal from independent restaurants and small-scale chains contains a whopping 1,327 calories—more than twice the recommended amount—according to a new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine.
Researchers at Tufts University analyzed 157 of the most popular meals (including side dishes) at 33 restaurants in the Boston area. While the average meal clocked in at 1,327 calories, some types of food were worse than others. Italian (1,755 calories per meal on average) and American (1,494 calories) were the worst. Even Vietnamese, which was the best, averaged 922 calories per meal. To put this in perspective, though, the average woman only needs about 600 calories per meal, says senior study author Susan B. Roberts, PhD, co-author of The “I” Diet. And 1,327 calories is more than double that—not to mention about 66 percent of the total calories the average adult needs in one day.
You can thank huge portion sizes and unhealthy ingredients for the excessive calorie counts, says Roberts. Even something as benign as tandoori chicken, which is typically grilled and should be relatively healthy, can come soaked in oil that cranks up the calorie count, she says.
What’s worse is that you have no way of knowing what the calorie counts are at these types of restaurants. Unlike major chains, small restaurants aren’t required to list nutrition info on their menus or websites. And Roberts says humans tend to be pretty bad at guessing how many calories are lurking in a large dish. “When restaurants are serving these gross, obscene portion sizes, we don’t know what we’re eating,” she says.
This doesn’t mean that you have to give up on dining out altogether, though. Roberts suggests immediately setting aside half of your order and asking your server to put it in a to-go box, as well as asking for condiments on the side. Both of these steps can help keep your meal under control.