Where you eat matters for your health… sort of

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In the last week, how many of your meals did you make at home? As our lives get busier and busier, more of us are choosing to eat food away from home and that might play a role in weight gain, suggests a new study. And that in turn could lead to increased cancer risk.

From 1970 to 2012, the percent of food budget Americans spent on food at restaurants, school, work, etc increased from 26% to 43%.

Source: Unites States Department of Agriculture

Fast Food vs Full Service Restaurants

From 2007-2011 US adults consumed an average of 11% of daily calories from fast food. Although there has been a lot of focus put on fast food, we have been increasing our intake from full service restaurants as well.

The new study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition is helping to shed some light on how both types of restaurants could affect could affect our diet. Using data from the 2003- 2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), researchers analyzed 2 days worth of food intake data from over 18,000 adults.

The study assessed:

  • Where food was prepared (home, fast food, or full service restaurant)
  • Where it was consumed (at home or away from home)
  • Quality of intake based on total daily calories and 24 other nutrients including fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, sugar and more.

Compared to food you get at home, eating food purchased from either a fast food or a full service restaurant translated to eating almost 200 more calories per day. It also led to diners eating more fat, sodium and cholesterol.

Study Data

Where we sit down to eat the food may matter too. When participants took home food from full service restaurants, the amounts of calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium were significantly lower than when this food was not eaten at home; this was not seen for fast food.

The two major takeaways from this study are:

  • Making food at home is probably better for your health.
  • Fast food and full service restaurants BOTH result in SIMILAR increase in calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium.

What about the kids?

Although this study looked at adults, previous research suggests similar findings among children. A study using 2003-2004 NHANES data found that for kids ages 13-18 years old, every meal eaten away from home resulted in poorer quality diet and 108 extra daily calories.

What can you do?

  1. Cook meals at home whenever possible. Check out AICR’s healthy recipes for great ideas, including some that you can make ahead for quick prep on a busy night.
  2. Opt for take-out. Bringing food home, may make it easier to control our portion size. Serve food on plates and wrap up the leftovers!
  3. Be on guard when eating food away from home. Regardless of where you choose to go, the research shows we are more likely to over consume. Here are some tips for making smart choices when eating away from home.




Author: Samantha

Samantha Tryon MS, RD is a dietitian living in Washington, DC. Sam is a former high school teacher who is passionate about making science information accessible to the public and promoting healthy behaviors and a positive body image.

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