rerun image Studies are confirming what you already knew intuitively. "Check, please" are two of the most fattening words in the English language. The more often you eat food prepared away from home, the more calories you consume, the less healthful the meals, and the heavier you become.

Researchers at the California Department of Health Services found that people who eat out consume up to 25% less in the way of fruits and vegetables than people who prepare all their meals at home. And investigators at the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at Tufts University published a study indicating that the more frequently people eat out, the higher their level of body fatness as a result of eating more calories and fat and less fiber. The association between eating out and body fatness is "robust," the researchers say.

We're Eating Out Too Often

Once upon a time, overdoing it when eating away from home didn't present much of a problem, because dining out was a rare event. "It used to be that Americans ate out for Mother's day, birthdays, and anniversaries," says Hope Warshaw, a dietitian and author of of several books on eating out, including "What to Eat When You’re Eating Out.”

Today, eating out is just a part of life," she comments. "But we haven't shifted our mind set about how we think about restaurant meals. We still think of them as an opportunity to splurge. That was fine and well when it was four times a year. Now it's four times a week."

Even some restaurateurs are seeing it the same way. "Eating too much was always part of [eating out]," says Nora Pouillon, chef/owner of Washington, DC's Restaurant Nora. "Since it was only occasional, you could catch up the next day," say, by eating less than usual or exercising. "Now," she comments, "people eat out or buy prepared food every night. The portions are too big, and they still eat like it's only an occasional thing." And there's never a next day to "catch up," as she says.

Portion Sizes Play a Role

Indeed, restaurant portions are even bigger than they were in the days when Mom wore a corsage to her Mother's Day meal at the local upscale family restaurant. "Both plate size and portion size have steadily increased through this whole decade," notes Jonathan Locke, a partner in FoodSense, a Minneapolis-based restaurant consulting firm. Even if you order the low-fat entree, he comments, "if you're getting two wheelbarrows' worth, you're going to pack on calories."

According to a recent survey of 300 executive chefs throughout the US, 76% perceived the portion sizes that they served to be “regular.” But when compared to the government recommendations, their portions were actually two to four times larger.

It's often said that restaurants are to blame for the ever larger portions and should shoulder at least some of the responsibility for helping people eat less when they eat food prepared away from home, perhaps by serving smaller servings for less money. But dietitian Warshaw says that in the end, it goes back to the patron, not the restaurant. "As long as consumers equate volume with value," she points out, "it's going to be difficult to get restaurants to serve less food."

And volume is what people want. "I hear it all the time," reports chef Nora. "The Cheesecake Factory, for example. The first thing people tell me is 'the portions are enormous. You should see what you get,' not 'the food was delicious.' It's perceived that the more that's on the plate, the better the restaurant," she adds. "It's a quantity notion, not a quality notion."

That's true even in upscale restaurants. Says Sirio Maccioni, owner of New York's Four-Star Le Cirque, "A steak has to be 14 ounces. Otherwise, you don't want to pay for it."

The restaurant patron's desire for more food is stronger now than ever, says industry consultant Locke, because people are feeling "economically flush" these days and want that reflected in their dining experiences. Even in leaner times, he explains, lots of food is what makes the restaurant experience worthwhile for people. "Restaurants don't sell food," he says. "They sell memories. They want you to go home with a good memory. [And] it's a lot easier to make a huge impression on people with a magnificent array of abundance."

Tips for the Restaurant-goer

So what's a calorie-conscious restaurant diner to do? After all, it's not easy for many people to stop eating if they're full but there's still food left on the plate.

Warshaw recommends that they "practice menu creativity." She says, "You don't have to order an entree. You can eat an appetizer" and split an entree and dessert with your dining partner. Or skip the entree or appetizer altogether.

Megan McCrory, lead researcher of the Tufts study on restaurant dining and body fatness, concurs. Sharing works even better than putting some aside for a doggie bag, she says, because it take less willpower. Once you've given some of your food away," she points out, "the amount you eat is automatically controlled." The $2 that some restaurants charge for entree sharing is well worth it, she believes.

If you do order a doggie bag, McCrory advises, set a certain amount aside for it even before you begin eating. "Don't wait to see what's left over The foods that we eat at restaurants are a lot different than at home. They taste good," no doubt because they're often loaded with flavor-carrying fat. So if you don't create your own portion size from the get-go, you could easily end up succumbing to too many calories.

McCrory also points out that restaurant diners need to make a conscious effort not to overeat because they're usually dining in the company of others, and "people eat more when they're eating with other people," she notes.

Maccioni of Le Cirque, like Warshaw, reminds restaurant-goers that they don't have to have a three-course meal. At his restaurant, he says, a diner could "feel full enough on the first course and a main course. You don't need dessert to feel full." He adds that ordering a low-fat entree doesn't solve by itself the problem of consuming too many calories. "People order broiled fish. While they're waiting, they eat two rolls with butter. So what can we tell you? It's up to the person how much to eat."

By way of example, Warshaw points out, "I have 10 pastry chefs. But, everyday I refrain from eating a lot of sugary desserts. I have more fruit now."

Both he and Nora add that, contrary to the beliefs of some diners, restaurateurs are not at all put off by special requests for such things as sauces on the side, steamed vegetables, plate sharing, doggie bags, and the like. "We're not offended if people want to take half home," says Maccioni. "We're happy about that. It means they like the food."

Nora echoes his doggie-bag philosophy: "For me, the worst thing is to see it go in the garbage," she says. "Skipping entrees and/or sharing dessert is also no problem," she says. She talks, in fact, about dining parties in which "each has an appetizer, shares an entree, and then shares a dessert. There are people who have figured out that you can't eat a three-course meal every day and just get in your car and go back to your office or go home and just watch TV."