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Dining at a Restaurant

Eating Out Means More Calories, Sodium, Sugar & Fat

A lot of social activities revolve around food – a date, girls’ night out, or even a birthday celebration. And then there are those nights when you’re just too tired to cook, or you’re really craving that one dish from your favorite local restaurant.

It seems that we’re eating out more than ever, with nearly half of our total food budget going to out-of-home food expenditures. So what are the effects of eating-out this often? And is there a difference between eating fast-food and eating at a sit-down restaurant?

A study by researchers at the American Cancer Society and the University of Illinois at Chicago, published in the journal Public Health Nutrition, found that eating out, regardless of whether it was a fast food restaurant or a full-service restaurant, resulted in the consumption of about 200 additional total daily calories, in addition to more sodium, sugar, and saturated fat.

“Full-service restaurants added an average of 205 more calories, 2.5 more grams of saturated fat, and 451 more milligrams of sodium to a meal.”

For the study, the researchers used recent data from nearly 13,000 participants, between 20 and 64 years or age, from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2003 (NHANES). As part of the survey, participants were asked about their visits to fast-food and full-service restaurants on two consecutive days.

Researchers found that on days when participants ate at a fast-food restaurant, they consumed, on average, 194 more calories, 3.5 additional grams of saturated fat, 4.0 additional grams of sugar, and 296 more milligrams of sodium.

Full-service restaurants did not fare much better, adding an average of 205 more calories, 2.5 more grams of saturated fat, and 451 more milligrams of sodium to a meal.

The study also found that younger persons and males ate more fast food and consumed more saturated fat, and younger adults also saw increased sugar intake compared to older adults.

In addition, black adults who ate food from outside the home consumed more calories compared to whites or Hispanics, and more calories were consumed by adults in the middle-income demographic versus those in a high-income demographic.

The researchers noted that individual characteristics limited the effect of restaurant food consumption.

Study author Lisa Powell, professor of Health Policy and Administration at the University of Illinois at Chicago, stated, “We know that parallel to the rising rates of obesity, Americans have been increasingly eating food away from home, and they now take in, on average, about 600 calories a day from restaurants," but “eating out at restaurants should be the exception, not the norm.”

The Bottom Line

Whether it’s eat-in or take-out, we’re definitely eating out more often. Here are some facts to digest:

  • In 1977, about 18% of our calories came from eating out, but by 1995, the percentage nearly doubled to 34% and continues to grow.
  • Studies have shown that eating food prepared outside the home is associated with obesity, higher body fat, and a higher BMI.
  • Women who eat food prepared outside the home more than five times a week consume nearly 300 calories more per day than those who eat home-prepared meals.
  • Eating more fast-food is linked to eating more calories, more saturated fat, and fewer fruits and vegetables.

So while eating out might not be the only cause for the obesity epidemic, it certainly is a contributor. What can we do to curb the effects of this behavior?

The first thing would be to cut back on eating out. If you find yourself eating out for breakfast and lunch, you may find it helps to plan ahead of time and make your own. You’ll not only save calories and eat healthier, but you’ll save money, too.

You can cook a large batch of oatmeal and individually portion servings for the week. Hard boil some eggs and keep in the fridge for a quick breakfast or snack. Make mini veggie omelets in a muffin tin and refrigerate/freeze them for later. Top fresh fruit with a dollop of yogurt and granola. Wash and bag individual servings of fruits and vegetables early in the week for grab and go convenience, or even throw them in the blender for a quick breakfast green juice. Leftover protein from dinner? Toss it in a sandwich or salad for lunch the next day.

If your find yourself eating out for dinner, then here are some more ideas on how to eat healthier:

  • Cut portions in half
  • Ask for sauces on the side
  • Ask to go easy on the seasoning
  • Get steamed, broiled, baked or grilled options instead of fried
  • Substitute starches (e.g., rice, French fries, potato) for an extra vegetable,
  • Share a meal with a friend or spouse
  • Skip the dessert
  • Skip sweetened beverages and watch the calories on mixed drinks
  • Frequent establishments that offer healthier choices

Don’t be afraid to ask others for healthy recommendations, too, as a recent study showed that crowdsourcing helped dieters stick to healthy foods and lose weight.

The best way to control calories, fat, sodium, and sugar is to be in control of what you eat, and that comes from preparing your food yourself. Save eating out for special occasions, and not only will you feel healthier, you may even find that you enjoy them more this way!

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