A new study has found that eating in a full-service restaurant may subject Americans to consuming the same amount of nutritional components as when they eat fast food. The source of the meal, as well as the actual place where it is consumed, influences one's quality of diet and amount of calorie intake.

The study led by Ruopeng An, a professor of kinesiology and community health from the University of Illinois, aims to investigate the effects of eating from fast food joints and full-service restaurants on the energy and nutrient consumption of adults in the U.S.

The researchers performed the study by obtaining data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2003-2010, particularly on 18,098 adults who were 18 years old and above. The researchers analyzed the daily total consumption of calories and 24 nutrients that have caused public health concerns.

The main predictors include the daily intake of fast food and restaurant food, differentiated by eating it at home or away from home. The researchers investigated the food that the study participants consumed during the past two days. Based on the analysis, it was found one-third of the study subjects ate fast food during one or both days, and a quarter said they ate restaurant food for at least one day.

The findings of the study, published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, show the following net increases noted in individuals, who consumed fast food items: 190.29 kcal of daily total energy, 10.61 g of total fat, 3.49 g of saturated fat, 10.34 g of cholesterol and 297.47 g of sodium.

The net increases of the same nutrients were also investigated among the participants, who consumed full-service restaurant food; the results include 187.74 kcal of energy, 9.58 g of total fat, 2.46 g of saturated fat, 57.90 g of cholesterol and 411.92 mg of sodium.

The researchers noted that factors such as race or ethnicity, sex, income, education and weight had different effects on fast food and restaurant food consumption. Another key finding is that more elevated total energy, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium were taken in when participants stayed away from home.

The results are largely surprising as many people think that fast food contains significantly larger amounts of calories and sodium compared to full-service restaurant food, but according to An, individuals are at a higher risk of overeating at a restaurant than in a fast food joint.

This is where an important concept comes in: "dietary behavior is influenced by eating environment." Factors such as socializing, having a wide variety of food choices, and having longer periods of dinner time may also influence the increased consumption of calories in a restaurant, An explains.

Only restaurants with 20 or more branches are required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to include calorie or nutrient content details on their menu. As full-service restaurants rarely have 20 or more branches, the FDA requirement does not frequently apply to them.

"People who consume food at full-service restaurants are not aware of the calorie and nutrient content in the food served [and] are more likely to overeat and are less cautious about the extra calories they intake from the full-service restaurant," said An.

Preparing meals at home, on the other hand, enables people to know exactly what they consume, advises Lori Rosenthal, a dietitian at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. When people eat out, they leave everything to the chef, but when food is prepared at home, the people are in control.

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