One of my neighbors, widowed about three years ago, never eats at home but goes to specific restaurants for breakfast, lunch and dinner. “I don’t want to sit in my kitchen and eat a microwaved dinner while watching the news,” she told me.
“Eating in restaurants makes me feel less invisible.”
Her social objectives to meet people and not eat alone are being met. She has made friends from the neighborhood who eat at the same restaurants, and she is less lonely. But the cost of eating all her meals away from home has been a marked increase in her weight. Never slim, she now had gained so much weight that her already compromised knees and back have made walking difficult without a walker, and she is short of breath.
Her weight gain from eating in restaurants puts her in good company. It is thought that the doubling of the prevalence of obesity in the U.S. over the last 35 years is due in large part to the increase in meals eaten away from home. Fifty years ago, 30 percent of the food budget went toward meals at restaurants. Now it is almost 50 %.
Not all restaurants, of course, generate weight gain. But chain restaurants in particular promote calorically dense foods: fried chicken, chicken nuggets, double or triple cheeseburgers, meatball subs covered with cheese, sandwich fillings that are more mayonnaise than protein, and high fat salad dressings and special ‘sauces.’ Some food items may contain enough calories for the day, not just one meal.
But my friend, who after all had cooked for a husband and children and then grandchildren for decades, knows enough to avoid fried chicken, French fries, and a salad limp under a quarter of a cup of salad dressing. She thought she was making nutritionally wise food choices. The problem, when she asked me how to start losing weight, was that neither she nor I had much of an idea of what the foods she was eating contained.
“I try to avoid foods that I think will have too much salt or sugar but who knows what is in the food?, she told me. I try to pay attention to the calories if they are listed on the menu, but it is confusing. I don’t mind eating a lot of calories if they are from good protein, but what if the calories are from butter or mayonnaise, or some fatty meat like bacon? “
Jane (not her real name) did not want to stop going to restaurants and begin to eat at home in order to lose weight. The cost of doing so would have been social isolation and even depression. The solution was to find out what she was eating, and to make some informed choices.
The solution: we spent a cold rainy afternoon in front of the computer looking up the nutrients and calories in the foods offered at the restaurants where she was eating. We were surprised at what we found. Oatmeal for example: She liked oatmeal for breakfast, and I couldn’t convince her to eat it at home. “If I don’t get out of the house when I wake up, I feel depressed,” she told me. She had been going to Dunkin Donut for coffee and a cup of oatmeal. The calorie content of the oatmeal was reasonable, 310 calories, but we were shocked to see that it contained more sugar than oatmeal: 40 grams of sugar and about 26 grams of the starchy carbohydrate. Choosing the flatbread veggie-egg white sandwich with diced pepper and cheddar cheese? She would be getting 18 grams of protein (the oatmeal had very little protein), and only 5 grams of sugar. Had she gone instead to Au Bon Pain, a block away, for her oatmeal she would have eaten about the same number of calories, but only 1 gram of sugar.
On the other hand, when we checked the calorie contents of some calorically innocent sounding Au Bon Pain sandwiches, we were surprised at how many calories they contained. A chicken sandwich which should have been a relatively low calorie option contained high fat ingredients like avocado and bacon and clocked in at more than 600 calories. Other chicken or turkey sandwiches were also calorically high, especially for someone as sedentary as Jane.
“What about a roasted vegetarian wrap?” asked Jane, peering at the computer screen, “It sounds healthy.” But that came through with a whopping 700 calories. Fortunately, half sandwich options were available, and if combined with a low calorie vegetable soup, this seemed like a good lunch option.
Eating dinner at a restaurant forestalled Jane’s returning to an empty apartment too early in the evening, so that meal became even more socially important than the previous two. Unfortunately, her favorite eating place served gigantic portions, which Jane tended to finish because she hated to waste food. She thought a solution might be to share an entree with a friend who also lived alone, and if her friend was not available, asking the waitperson for a half size portion. “They don’t have to put so much food on my plate,” she said. “Look, if you can ask for salad without dressing, or a dish without nuts or bacon or cheese, why can’t you ask for less food on the plate?“
The financial and caloric costs of eating away from home are higher than eating in one’s kitchen. But the social and mental health benefits, as in Jane’ case, are compelling. If we can make nutritional information about restaurant food easier to obtain, portions smaller and healthier, then the choice does not have to be eating a lonely meal at home, or eating with the company of others away from home.