Is the average city dweller diet healthy? Logic might tempt us to speculate not. Consumers who are time-poor are often more prone to making hasty, ill-considered food choices, and developing unhealthy dietary habits.
New York, one of the busiest cities in the world, is known for its diverse culture and wide range of signature cuisines. We decided to compare and assess the nutritional value of 15 items representative of the city, to try and determine how healthy a diet featuring these staples might be.
- Chicken Parmigiana and Chicken and Waffles (the soul food version) contained the highest number of calories with 1160 each (nearly 60% of an adult’s daily reference intake).
- The New York Cheesecake was the most sugar-laden at 48 grams. This accounts for over half of someone’s total sugar RI.
- The regular consumption of high-sugar, high-calorie foods plays a significant role in obesity, which affects an estimated 36% of American adults.
- Consuming the Reuben sandwich alone would cause someone to exceed their salt RI. However 13 of the dishes contain enough salt to put someone within the RI range (2-6 grams).
- A high salt diet is a major factor in high blood pressure, a condition which 29% of American adults live with.
*We sourced nutritional information from restaurants and food outlet menus where possible. That means that the dishes featured are restaurant servings, and may contain more salt, sugar and calories than they would were they prepared at home.
- Chicken Parmigiana and Chicken and Waffles tied for the most calorific.
- The daily reference intake for an adult woman (RI) is 2000 calories and for an adult man is 2,500 calories; meaning that partaking in either of these dishes will account for 58 percent of a woman’s total recommended intake, or 46 percent of a man’s.
- The Manhattan Clam Chowder contained the fewest calories, with just 120 per serving (or ‘cup’).
- Unsurprisingly, the New York Cheesecake contained the most sugar of the signature items we looked at, with 48 grams.
- The daily RI of total sugars for an adult is 90 grams, but the recommended limit for foods containing added sugars is that they should account for no more than five percent of calorie intake.
- The New York Cheesecake comes in at 605 calories, which is around a quarter of a person’s recommended calorie RI.
- Deli favourite the Reuben tops the list with 6.1 grams of salt.
- Chicken Parmigiana (5.6) and Chicken and Waffles (5) round out the top three.
- Our version of the pretzel is with 2 grams of salt added when serving at a food cart. However a simple baked pretzel, without added salt, would only contain around half a gram.
- The RI for an adult is 2-6 grams. 13 of the 15 dishes we looked at sit inside this range, which demonstrates how easy it is to reach recommended safe limits for salt in just one meal.
- Eggs Benedict clocks up the most saturated fat per portion with 24 grams.
- Chicken and Waffles and the New York Cheesecake come in second and third with 22 and 20 grams.
- The reference intake for an adult is 20 grams, meaning all three of the above dishes will effectively take someone over their total.
When it comes to culinary variety, New York is perhaps the wealthiest place on Earth. Its rich and culturally diverse heritage has resulted in dishes from all over the world being imported and made famous there, and served as an inspiration to chefs based in the city in the creation of their own signatures.
But what of the health reputation of the city’s iconic cuisine? The typical New Yorker lifestyle is fast-paced, energetic and burns the candle at both ends; and as we’ve noted before, working hard and playing hard are habits that tend to keep calorie- and sugar-dense foods as close company.
Following on from our organic food outlet study a few weeks ago, we thought it might be interesting to look into how diet and nutrition might be affected by the demands of urban living; and undoubtedly New York serves as the ultimate example.
We took 15 of the most iconic foods the city has to offer, and compared their calorie content, sugar content, salt content and saturated fat content. To get an idea of which dishes contained the good as well as the bad, we also looked at their fibre and protein levels.
We tried to include one or two dishes representative of each of the different cultural backgrounds that have come to define the city; such as those of Italian, Jewish, Afro-Caribbean, Polish, Portuguese, German, Arabic, Greek and Chinese heritage.
The falafel wrap contains the most fibre, with 19 grams, which is only five grams off the daily recommended intake of 24 grams. Fibre is vital for healthy digestive function, aids nutrient assimilation in the body and helps to lower cholesterol.
The Chicken Parmigiana (55 grams), the Chicken Waldorf (42 grams) and Chicken and Waffles (40 grams) are all rich sources of protein (albeit either calorific, salty or sugar-laden). The recommended level of protein intake for an adult is 50 grams. The body uses it to generate and mend tissue, and it also has a crucial role in endocrine function. As with fibre though, it’s much better if you can spread your intake across the day rather than just cramming it all into one meal.
Whether it’s intentional or not, the high calorie and sugar content of many of the dishes we’ve looked at seem to reflect the busy lifestyles they cater to. Diners short on time and keeping to a busy schedule need high energy volumes from their meals to keep them going (because they might not get the opportunity to eat again throughout the day), and several of the above dishes provide that.
But while many may turn to energy-dense options for sustenance, such choices can often be made as a reaction to lifestyle pressures; for instance someone who has had a particularly tense day at work may turn to high-calorie food because they think it will help them relax and wind down.
In reality though, the opposite of the above is true. Calorie-dense or sugar-laden foods may provide a temporary release from feelings of stress, but they have a tendency to increase cortisol activity in the body and therefore amplify stress levels.
Similarly, those seeking to maintain energy for a busy day at the office should spread their consumption out, rather than trying to get all their calories from one sitting. Eating too big a portion in one go will inevitably lead to spikes and dips in energy levels.
Variety and control
The sheer spread of options we’ve covered serves to demonstrate the variety of cuisines on offer, not just in New York but undoubtedly in urban centres across the world.
One drawback of there being so many options available, is that it can be tough when busy and pressed for time to keep tabs on our nutritional needs. In an environment where you can eat anything you want at any time of day, it’s much easier and convenient to make food choices on a whim when looking for somewhere to eat.
Essentially then, with increased choice comes increased responsibility. To stay healthy in an environment where it is easy to slip up or succumb to poor food choices, it’s even more important to remain disciplined and keep track of your diet.
We keep going back to the benefits of preparing food at home, but this is exactly what a healthy diet is all about. Takeaways and meals out are fine as an occasional treat, but they’re not meant to form daily staples of a person’s dietary routine. The more you cook at home, you more control you can exert over the amount of sugar, salt and fat going into what you eat.
As mentioned above, we’ve used data from nutrition guides provided by restaurants, and this makes a huge difference to the content of the food.
To put it crudely, the aim of a restaurant, cafe or a takeaway outlet is get you to go back, and to tell your friends about how good it was. They want you to like the food and have a positive experience. To ensure this, the restaurant needs to provide two things: nice-tasting food and value for money.
Salt tends to make food taste nice, and so does fat and sugar. Some ingredients used to make restaurant dishes are naturally salty, fatty or sugar laden. In some cases, a restaurant may add salt or use a cooking process which utilises lots of oil or fat, to make a dish more appealing.
Value for money is where portion sizes come in. When eating out or getting takeaway food, consumers want to feel like they’ve been given their money’s worth. As a result, portion sizes served in food outlets might be bigger, from a nutritional point of view, than they really need to be. So while the ‘per 100g’ value of a restaurant dish may be fairly conservative, the ‘per serving’ value may be much higher in calories, sugar and salt.
Try to make eating out an occasion, rather than a habit.
If you’re dining out in a restaurant or eating takeaway food three or more times a week, we’d say that constitutes a habit.
Busy routines are an unavoidable aspect of urban living, but a good diet is crucial to supplement it. Calorie-dense foods are only a temporary fix for flagging energy levels; while healthier choices will help to solve the problem and be more sustainable long term.
Prepare lunch at home and take it with you to work as much as possible, make time to cook dinner from scratch, and keep an eye on portion sizes.