Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Other Side of the Restaurant-Obesity Link

Much has been said about possible links between restaurants and obesity, and nearly all of this has focused on the food: large portion sizes, undisclosed bottom-shelf ingredients, and recipes selected for unskilled cooks. Quite apart from the food, though, the restaurant experience may contribute to obesity.


Physical inactivity is about as important as food in creating obesity. Health coaches have been telling us this all along, and epidemiological studies seem to confirm it. If you somehow failed to notice the food when you looked at a typical restaurant, you could not help but notice the inactivity: customers sitting at tables for an hour or two at a stretch, most not budging from their chairs from the time they arrive until they time they leave.

Inactivity is not really an issue if you walk five blocks to a restaurant, but the standard American restaurant experience involves something more like a ten-minute drive, adding an extra 20 minutes of sitting to the restaurant experience. Only the 200 steps from the parking lot to the table, and the return trip, require any movement. The two-hour early-evening visit to a restaurant, then, gets you less physical activity than if you had worked late at the office, gone out to a bar, or gone to the movies.

How much does two hours of inactivity matter? Two hours is one eighth of a waking day, so for every eight restaurant suppers, you can strike off the equivalent of one day of physical activity. If you eat supper at restaurants once a week, the inactivity effect alone is theoretically enough to increase your body weight by 1 to 2 percent per year, or more than 10 percent in a decade. Yes, that’s without even counting the effect of the food you eat.

Late Meals

For some reason, restaurants are associated with late meals, especially in the evening. Partly this is because a trip to a restaurant might be a fallback strategy after preparing a meal at home fails. Partly it is because of the inevitable delays in the way a restaurant works. Combine these and other effects, and if supper at home doesn’t happen the way you planned it at 6:00, and still isn’t happening at 6:30, you might find yourself waiting at a restaurant table for your meal to arrive at 8:15.

Eating late in the evening, though, messes with your metabolism. Eating any food at all, but especially a meal, after 8:00 p.m. results in a larger proportion of the food being stored as fat. Some experts say 7:00 p.m. is the cutoff. Late-evening food sets up a clash between digestion and sleep that can cause a range of minor health issues, most notably insomnia, which in turn is known to cause weight gain. Experts disagree about the magnitude of the late-evening-food effect, but it is big enough that many people have been able to lose weight just by not eating after 8:00 p.m.

A rule of thumb I use for weight loss is that supper should be just large enough for you to get to sleep later, but that is not the kind of eating that the restaurant experience encourages. If it is late in the evening when you finally get to eat and the delay has made you very hungry, it is easy to eat the entire plate of food that the restaurant has to offer.

Real Estate Accounting

Restaurant business plans are based, for the most part, on real estate calculations. Most restaurants are located on prime commercial real estate, and they maximize that space by fitting the largest number of customers into the dining room. Customers who are moving around take up more space, so the layout of a dining room discourages that. Each table can be occupied three times during dinner hour, providing the revenue of three tables, if the restaurant can stretch out dinner over a 5-hour period from 4:30 to 9:30, so restaurants do their best to make that happen. These imperatives of the restaurant business tend to work against the health of their customers, but they can’t be easily corrected.

In one area, though, restaurants can help, and that is by reducing the length of the kitchen lag in a restaurant visit. If you wait a shorter time for your food to be cooked, the total length of your restaurant visit is shorter. This is not as easy to accomplish as it seems, but one trend in restaurants in the last 8 years has been to deemphasize dessert. Dessert menus have become smaller and simpler so that you might skip dessert entirely, or if you do order a dessert, they’ll get it to your table quickly. The food energy content of a restaurant dessert can be substantial, of course, but the extra 20 minutes of inactivity counts for something too.