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A person's local diner or family-run restaurant was just as likely to pile on the calories as a big chain, the Boston study found. In fact, local, small-chain restaurants tended to have slightly higher calorie counts per meal (an average of 1,437) than national chains (1,359), although the difference wasn't statistically significant.

"Many of these [local] restaurants make fast food look healthy," Roberts said.

However, without the aid of calorie counts on menus, figuring out which meal is better for you can be tough.

Without posted calorie counts, there was "no way to identify the meals that had appropriate calories for a normal human being," Roberts said. "Portions and calories per ounce were very variable between restaurants even for the same dishes -- often by a factor of two."

Therefore, "restaurants that do not provide nutrition information are very unhealthy places to eat, from the calorie perspective," she said. Roberts would like to see many more restaurants posting calorie and nutrition information, "so consumers can choose whether to overeat or not."

In the second study, Canadian researchers led by graduate student Scourboutakos analyzed 685 meals and 156 desserts from 19 sit-down, chain restaurants.

They found the average breakfast, lunch and dinner contained 1,128 calories, again a majority of the daily number of calories recommended for adults.

In addition, the meals typically contained 151 percent of the daily amount of salt a person should ingest daily, 89 percent of the fat recommended per day, 83 percent of daily recommended saturated and trans fats, and 60 percent of the cholesterol one should have daily.

One expert agreed that restaurant meals often include unexpected amounts of calories, salt and fat.

"Eating out is fun," acknowledged Samantha Heller, a senior clinical nutritionist at New York University Medical Center in New York City. "For the homemaker, it is a break from nightly cooking and cleaning up." However, the problem is that many, if not most, restaurant foods, whether from chain or local eateries, contain far more saturated fat, calories and sodium than anyone would imagine, she said.

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