WEDNESDAY, Oct. 2, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- Despite highly publicized claims about making their menus healthier, the overall calorie and sodium levels in main entrees offered by top U.S. chain restaurants have remained the same in recent years, a new study contends.
Researchers evaluated the nutritional content changes of more than 26,000 regular menu entrees at 213 major U.S. restaurant chains between 2010 and 2011. Even with all the changes the restaurants made to their menus, there was no meaningful overall change in nutrition, the study found.
In both 2010 and 2011, the average entree contained 670 calories. There was a tiny decline in sodium levels, from 1,515 to 1,500 milligrams, according to the study published Oct. 1 in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
"Restaurant menus did not get any healthier over time," Helen Wu, a policy and research analyst at the Institute for Population Health Improvement at the University of California, Davis Health System, said in a university news release.
"Across the restaurant industry, we see a pattern of one step forward, one step back," Wu said. "Restaurants make changes to their menus regularly, but they may make both healthy and unhealthy changes simultaneously. This study provides objective evidence that overall, we did not see a new wave of healthier entrees come in to replace less healthy ones."
While the overall levels of calories and sodium remained stable, some restaurant chains did significantly lower calorie and sodium amounts in their main entrees, while other chains significantly increased them, the researchers noted.
The investigators also found that, overall, children's meals did not become healthier, although fast-food entrees did have an average reduction of 40 calories.
The study authors noted that Americans consume about one-third of their total calories and spend half of their food budget eating away from home.
"Consumers need to be aware that when they step into a restaurant, they are playing a high-stakes game with their health by making dietary choices from menus that are loaded with high-calorie, high-sodium options," Wu said. "This is a game that health-conscious consumers have a very low chance of winning, given the set of menu offerings available in U.S. chain restaurants today."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about healthy eating.