Restaurants across the world serve oversized meals, reported a study conducted by an international team of researchers and supported by FAPESP - São Paulo Research Foundation.
The study, published in the British Medical Journal, weighed and measured energy content of meals being served by eateries in Ribeirão Preto (Brazil), Beijing (China), Kuopio (Finland), Accra (Ghana) and Bangalore (India) and found that 94 per cent of the most popular main dishes served in sit-down restaurants and 72 per cent of those purchased over the counter from fast food outlets contained more than 600 kilocalories (kcal).
Notably, this is the benchmark recently recommended by the United Kingdom's National Health Service (NHS) to help reduce the global obesity epidemic.
The experts found a significant correlation between meal weight and energy content. They concluded that some popular meals were both far larger and more caloric than necessary.
Speaking about it, co-author of the study, Vivian Suen said, "Obesity is a world health problem caused by several factors, such as sedentary living, processed food and sugar intake, and overeating. Many people may confuse food craving with hunger. This study shows that any strategy to combat obesity should also consider these excesses."
The World Health Organization (WHO) considers obesity a global epidemic and a major risk factor for heart disease, stroke and diabetes, among other diseases. It estimates that 1.9 billion adults are overweight and 600 million are obese worldwide.
The study finds that the selected restaurant and fast food meals supplied between 70 per cent and 120 per cent of the daily energy required by a sedentary woman - approximately 2,000 kcal - except in China, where the energy content of the most popular meals was significantly lower.
However, Suen added that the study did not take into account the mode of preparation or the nutritional composition of the meals analysed.
"The fact is that many people who patronise these restaurants are overeating," Suen said.
The researchers measured the energy content of a representative sample of 223 popular meals purchased from 111 randomly selected sit-down restaurants and fast food outlets. They compared these findings with data from restaurants in Boston (USA) extracted from previous studies by Tufts University.
"The findings refute two widely held ideas. We're not just eating the wrong foods but also overeating, and in terms of calories, a meal considered healthy may often increase the organism's energy balance and hence add more weight than a fast food meal," Suen said.
The results showed that the energy content of fast food meals was lower on average (809 kcal) than that of a sit-down restaurant meal (1,317 kcal). However, the study was far from being a defense of fast food outlets.
Furthermore, oversized portions also have an effect on the so-called compensation mechanism, Suen explained.
"When nonobese people have a large midday meal, they normally feel less hungry in the evening and eat less for dinner, for example," she said. "However, obese people appear not to have this perception, as has been found in several studies by the research group at Tufts University. Therefore, this regulation in terms of eating less in the next meal doesn't happen in obese individuals," Suen added.
According to Suen, food quality is also important. Eating low-quality carbohydrates such as saturated fat or large amounts of sugar contributes to diseases associated with excessive intake of these products.