In a world of misinformation, Fitness Pudding is here to separate fact from fallacy, and science from fiction.

Is Eating at Restaurants Healthier than Fast Food?

Is Eating at Restaurants Healthier than Fast Food?

fast food blackWe know the ‘quality’ of our food begets the ‘quantity’ of food and calories that we eat. Accordingly, the quality of fast food might place it in a category with junk food. Full-service restaurant food, on the other hand, might be placed in a healthier category, alongside its eclectic atmosphere, fancy linens, dimmed lighthing, and glass salt shakers.

But, are people actually eating healthier by choosing restaurant food over fast food?

A Recent Study

This question was put to the test in a large study that examined over 18,000 adults using the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) between 2003 and 2010.1 On average, when fast food or full-service restaurant food was eaten, this is how much more they ate, per day:

  Calories Total
Fast Food 190 11 g 3.5 g 10 mg 297 mg
Restaurant 187 10 g 2.5 g 58 mg 412 mg

The Quick Results?

On a day when fast food and restaurant food was eaten, there was an similar increased intake of calories, fat, cholesterol, and sodium.

Also, despite the attention this study is getting in the media, it is not the first time the fast food versus restaurant question has been looked at. 

Previous Research

Published in 2014, a study examined the same NHANES national database, looking at the dietary recall interviews of 12,528 adults aged 20-64 years of age from 2003 to 2010.7 In a similar way, people ate more, no matter if they ate fast food or at a restaurant.

   Calories  Sugar  Sodium
Fast Food  195  4 g  300 mg
Restaurant  205  2.5 g  451 mg

The author concluded that the study, “confirms that adults’ fast-food and full-service restaurant consumption was associated with higher daily total energy intake and poorer dietary indicators.”

7 years prior, in 2007, researchers followed over 3,000 young adults for 3 years, and found that more people ate both restaurant food and fast food, the higher their BMI.4 Even way back in 1999, a study found that the more people ate away from home for "fried chicken, burgers, pizza, Chinese, Mexican, and fried fish," the higher their caloric and fat intake. To make things worse, eating out was also associated with less fiber intake and greater body fatness.6

Unfortunately for the fast food and restaurant goers out there, there are several other studies that seem to corroborate these findings.

Kids Too

And, these results do not stop with adults, as we see the same risks in children who eat away from home, including fast food, restaurant food, and coffee shop food.8 In contrast, children and adolescents who eat more meals at home with their families - not a lost tradition - may very well reduce the risk of being overweight, eating unhealthy foods, and having disordered eating habits, while increasing the odds of eating the healthy foods they need.5

Oh, and just in case you were thinking about it – buying fast food to bring home to eat with the family is still associated with higher body weight, greater intake of fast food and snacks for the children, and less vegetables eaten at home.2


I called this one 'busted', because the research supports that eating out at either fast food or full-service restaurants appear to BOTH be related in greater intake of calories, saturated fat, cholesterol, sugar and sodium, with a concurrent decrease in fiber consumption. In some cases, eating at the restaurant might actually be worse than the traditional fast food option.

As Dr. An pointed out, "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." In addition, restaurants tend to serve larger portions, which can translate to greater caloric intake.

On the other hand, if we prepare our own meals, at home, we have complete control over what goes into them.

NOTE: As with all research that looks at averages of a small sample within the entire population, there are some who can eat healthfully at restaurants and those who cannot or choose not to. There are other factors, such as where you eat, where you work, where you live, how much money you make, and education level.

Also, it can take a lot of self-control to walk into a fast food or full-service restaurant and order the healthier choice, when there are so many other delectable, yet unhealthy options whispering over your other shoulder. As Jim Gaffigan once proposed with watching cooking shows at the gym, it might be like having an AA meeting in a brewery.

Awareness of these individual differences, the benefits of home-cooked food, and the self-control required to make healthier choices when eating away from home are important things to consider for those wanting to live a healthier lifestyle.



  1. An, R. (2015). Fast-food and full-service restaurant consumption and daily energy and nutrient intakes in US adults. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
  2. Boutelle, K. N., Fulkerson, J. A., Neumark-Sztainer, D., Story, M., & French, S. A. (2007). Fast food for family meals: relationships with parent and adolescent food intake, home food availability and weight status. Public Health Nutrition, 10(01), 16-23.
  3. Diliberti, N., Bordi, P. L., Conklin, M. T., Roe, L. S., & Rolls, B. J. (2004). Increased portion size leads to increased energy intake in a restaurant meal. Obesity Research, 12(3), 562-568.
  4. Duffey, K. J., Gordon-Larsen, P., Jacobs, D. R., Williams, O. D., & Popkin, B. M. (2007). Differential associations of fast food and restaurant food consumption with 3-y change in body mass index: the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults Study. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 85(1), 201-208.
  5. Hammons, A. J., & Fiese, B. H. (2011). Is frequency of shared family meals related to the nutritional health of children and adolescents?. Pediatrics, 127(6), e1565-e1574.
  6. McCrory, M. A., Fuss, P. J., Hays, N. P., Vinken, A. G., Greenberg, A. S., & Roberts, S. B. (1999). Overeating in America: association between restaurant food consumption and body fatness in healthy adult men and women ages 19 to 80. Obesity Research, 7(6), 564-571.
  7. Nguyen, B. T., & Powell, L. M. (2014). The impact of restaurant consumption among US adults: effects on energy and nutrient intakes. Public health nutrition, 17(11), 2445-2452.
  8. Thompson, O. M., Ballew, C., Resnicow, K., Must, A., Bandini, L. G., Cyr, H. D. W. H., & Dietz, W. H. (2004). Food purchased away from home as a predictor of change in BMI z-score among girls. International Journal of Obesity, 28(2), 282-289.
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