Eating Healthy

Nutrilyze Simulation Tests Chain Restaurant Nutrition

Todd Whitaker

Do chain restaurant meals pass the nutrition test? A Nutrilyze analysis provides insight.

In 2015, Bloomberg reported on data collected by the Commerce Department documenting how restaurant and bar sales are surpassing grocery sales for the first time in recorded history.

Nutrilyze believes that all consumers should have access to straightforward and objective resources for assessing the nutritional quality of restaurant meals.

As of 2015, there are over 283,000 chain restaurant locations in the United StatesThe Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires restaurant chains with 20 or more locations to disclose the macronutrient content of standard menu items by May 5, 2017, though many have already complied. This is a progressive step in encouraging chain restaurants to be transparent about the quality of food they are serving to the public. While this is one of the more promising steps forward in demystifying nutrition since the introduction of the package food label, this still does not directly inform the consumer about their personal nutritional needs or educate consumers about what nutritional density and quality looks like for them. Nutrilyze promotes educational nutritional information in an easy to comprehend and user friendly format.

Nutrilyze’s strength is that it quantifies and summarizes a complicated array of nutrient values and dietary guidelines into a score ranging from 0 to 100. This score is specifically tailored to an individual’s nutritional needs. Developed with simplicity and education in mind, it gives users a convenient way to make healthy decisions when dining out.

Nutrilyze has two different scoring models: the limited scoring model and the comprehensive scoring model. The limited scoring model analyzes calories, macronutrients, fiber and sodium content. Chain restaurants are currently only required to release calories, macronutrients, fiber and sodium content. The comprehensive scoring model incorporates all the information listed above as well as micronutrients (vitamins, etc..), essential fatty acids, and the amino acid profile of different protein sources. In this post Nutrilyze showcases the limited version of its scoring model that relies solely on the macronutrient values that chain restaurants are required to publish.

Despite efforts to offer low-calorie options containing healthier ingredients, chain restaurant food is still perceived as unhealthy. To determine the extent to which this is true, Nutrilyze first collected macronutrient data released by restaurants on 266 meals from 24 different chain restaurants. Restaurants included fast food giants such as McDonalds, Chik-fil-A, and Taco Bell; casual dining/bar and grill options such as Chili’s, First Watch, and Olive Garden; and fast casual dining such as Chipotle, Panera Bread, and Planet Sub. Meals were primarily selected to reflect the theme of each restaurant (burgers from McDonalds, tacos and burritos from Taco Bell). However, the “healthier” alternatives (a Mediterranean grilled chicken salad from a burger joint) were also included to provide a more accurate representation of each restaurant’s menu.

A Nutrilyze score adjusts for individual dietary needs that are primarily determined by biometrics and activity level. To create a representative set of likely Nutrilyze users, anthropometric data from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and demographic information from the United States Census Bureau were entered into a simulation that randomly generated 2,500 realistic combinations of biometrics, including age, gender, Body Mass Index (BMI), which is calculated from height and weight, activity level, and weight goals. An overweight 35-year-old female with a BMI of 29 who is moderately active and desiring to lose weight was one example. It is important to randomly generate numerous combinations to test the consistency of the scores the model would assign.

Each meal was scored for each hypothetical user, resulting in 665,000 meal scores. The average chain restaurant meal score is 52.7 while the median is 52.0, with a low of 7.8 and a high of 99.9. 90% of all meals scored below a 72, and only 0.4% of meals scored above a 90. A histogram helps to visualize how the scores are distributed.

To put those numbers in perspective, first imagine the best and worst case scenarios in the Nutrilyze scoring system. For a meal to earn a perfect overall Nutrilyze score (essentially 100), it would have perfect macronutrient and micronutrient sufficiency scores and zero for a detriment score (see previous post for scoring methodology). In the simplified version of the model, that means the meal would contain the recommended amount of carbohydrates, protein, fat, and fiber, while not exceeding recommended intake for calories, saturated fat, sodium, or sugar. In addition, a perfectly scored meal would contain zero grams of trans fat. For a meal to score zero, the detriments from excessive calories, sodium, saturated fat or trans-fat, would outweigh any sufficiency score given for nutritional value. A shot of lard with extra salt on top would effectively generate a zero score for any biometric profile.

To enhance that perspective, consider the following meals and the scores they generate for a 31-year-old male with a healthy BMI (18.5 – 25), who is moderately active and maintaining his current weight:

  • A 600 calorie salad with grilled chicken, greens, cabbage, apples, blueberries, and a vinaigrette scores 80.1, but would score in the 90s if it had less sodium.
  • A 700 calorie meatball sub on white bread with mozzarella cheese scores 54.3 due to a lack of fiber and elevated amounts of saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium.
  • A 1,100 calorie grilled chicken Cobb salad with bacon, blue cheese, and buttermilk ranch dressing scores 27.9 due to massive penalties from excessive calories, saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium.

With those numbers in mind, the 31-year-old male described above could consider the average chain restaurant meal slightly less healthy than the 700 calorie meatball sub. Not exactly a nutritional super food.

According to this brief Nutrilyze analysis, the average chain restaurant cuisine falls short of ideal nutrition, but there are healthy options waiting to be discovered.

Visit the blog next week where we continue to explore the nutritional value of chain restaurant meals. We’ll identify Nutrilyze score trends across biometric profiles, find the healthiest and unhealthiest meals, and dig deeper into the details to see what exactly drives these low scores.