The energy content of a large number of main meals in major UK restaurants is “excessive” and the full service restaurant meals tend to be higher in energy content than fast food meals, research published in the BMJ has found. 

University of Liverpool researchers analysed thousands of meals from places like Nando’s and McDonald's. The researchers examined at more than 13,500 meals on the menus of 21 full service restaurants and six fast-food chains. 

The observational study accessed online nutritional information for each restaurant and extracted the number of kilocalories for each eligible meal. Although nutritional information tends not to be displayed on UK restaurant menus in store, some restaurant chains provide this information on their websites. For those who did not not provide nutritional information on their UK website the researchers requested this information

The study found that in of all the restaurants included, the mean energy content of main meals was 977kcal. A sizeable proportion (47%) were “excessive” in energy content (≥1000 kcal), and only a small minority (9%) were in line with public health recommendations for main meal energy consumption (≤600 kcal). 

On average, the energy content of main meals served by full service restaurants was 268 kcal higher than that of main meals served by fast food restaurants. Full service restaurants also tended to serve more highly calorific main meals and provide fewer main meals meeting public health recommendations for energy consumption.

Well-known restaurant chains with high calorie content included Harvester, at 1,166 calories, JD Wetherspoon, with 1119 calories, and Nandos, on 1,019 calories. The biggest offender was Hungry Horse with 1358 calories on average in a main meal. 

Among fast food chains, meals at Burger King had an average of 711 calories, followed by Wimpy, at 721 calories, and McDonald’s at 726 calories. The highest meal in a restaurant classed as “fast-food” was at KFC, with an average of 987 calories.

Even when the study compared similar meals, the energy content in restaurant meals was greater. Burger meals in restaurants contained an average of 414kcal more than burger meals in fast-food chains, while salad meals in restaurants were   slightly higher in calories on average than fast food salads.

Dr Eric Robinson, lead researcher from Liverpool's department of psychological science, said the results were "shocking" but probably underestimated the calories consumed in restaurants as the analysis did not include drinks, starts, desserts or side orders. 

He said: "Only one-in-ten of the meals we surveyed could be considered a healthy number of calories.

He said: "It's really clear what the food industry need to do – they need to act more responsibly and reduce the number of calories that they're serving."

Britain’s restaurant habits are fuelling its obesity crisis he said, with four in ten adults eat out at least once a week.

Dr Robinson said the poor nutritional content of 'fast food' is well known but full service restaurants where dining tables are provided have received less attention.

Dr Robinson said portion size, the ingredients used and cooking methods could explain the difference, but he said the food industry had to make changes.

"It's really clear what the food industry need to do. They need to act more responsibly and reduce the number of calories that they're serving."

Researchers said many public health experts had focussed concern on fast foods, but not paid enough attention to the stodgy and fatty fare sold in high street restaurants.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of trade association UKHospitality, said restaurants, pubs and other hospitality businesses were already taking action to reduce calories and offer healthier dishes – but there were costs to consider too.

"Proposals to shrink the size of dishes or cap calories would be yet another burden for hard-pressed operators to absorb, resulting in prices going up and investment in businesses going down; inevitably negatively impacting the overall customer experience."

The researchers said it was possible the fast-food sector was now offering more lower-energy meals and healthier options, after pressure from campaigners to do so.

Food Standards Scotland is currently consulting on a proposal to improve the out of home food environment in Scotland which closed on 22 February 2019. 

“(Over)eating out at major UK restaurant chains: observational study of energy content of main meals” published by the BMJ can be found here.