Eating Out: The Elephant in the Room

EATING OUT: THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

In the last decade, modern food culture has undergone a massive shift away from traditional home-cooking.  More than ever, we depend on eating meals that were prepared by others. Restaurants come in all shapes and sizes—from fast food to five-star steakhouses.  The emerging category of gourmet fast food, which purports to marry gourmet food with the speed of automated fast-food service, continues to grow in popularity.  The promise embodied by brands like Sweet Green, Cava, and B Good is one of both health and convenience that could eliminate the need for home prepared food altogether.

Dozens of my clients have echoed nearly identical sentiments:

“I eat out several times a week, but so does everyone else. Shouldn’t I be able to do that?”

“I don’t want to give up eating out. I love ‘insert restaurant name here.’”

“Making food at home would just take so much more time.”

And when I have conversations during initial evaluations, many people complain of suspicious weight gain that crept up over the past year. And they feel truly confused as to why. The conversation often goes something like this:

Client: “I’ve kept all my food habits practically the same. I eat the same breakfast every day, and I don’t really snack.”

Erin: “Do you make most of your meals at home?’

Client: “Some of them. But not all. I usually eat lunch out. And a few dinners a week are eaten out, too.”

Erin: “How many dinners a week do you eat out?”

Client: “Maybe half.”

Erin: “Has that increased over the past year?”

Client: “Maybe it has. This year has been really busy. I used to bring lunch to work. And we didn’t use to order so much takeout at night.”

Most of us don’t perceive subtle differences in our eating habits over time. We think we’re eating “pretty healthy.” But our body is telling us another story. When we aren’t in control of what’s going onto our plate, we’re not managing our nutrition. And the physiological changes can be surprising.

Excessive Energy Density is Confusing

While some people may balk at the idea of eating out less, the data continues to demonstrate that energy dense foods are more challenging to guess the caloric content of, and that restaurant meals are consistently serving up far more calories than we think.

In a recent multi-country cross-sectional study, researchers investigated the caloric content of hundreds of restaurant meals throughout the United States, Brazil, China, Finland, India, and Ghana. They placed frequently purchased menu items in bomb calorimeters to determine total energy content of the meals. Their results were startling.

“A major limitation of previous research on restaurants and obesity is that almost all studies examining the composition of meals have used nutritional data provided by large chain restaurants. This approach excludes restaurants that do not provide nutritional information, which is the case for most full service and local fast food restaurants. The limited information available on measured energy contents indicates that restaurants in general, rather than fast food restaurants specifically, provide very high energy levels. In some cases, restaurant meals supply a whole day’s energy needs in a single entrée.” – Roberts et al, 2018, BMJ

Fast food restaurants have been widely criticized for failing to provide higher-quality or lower-calorie foods choices to consumers.  In response, people often tell me that they make sure to select high-end restaurants as a safeguard against excessive calories and poor food quality.

Unfortunately, quality or price is not protective against energy density. In fact, the same study found that the total energy content of fast food meals was significantly lower than that of meals from full service restaurants in the US (29%; P<0.001). In other words, commonly purchased meals from full-service restaurants had incredibly high energy density on average. The unadjusted mean energy content for all countries was 1317 kcal for full service meals and 809 kcal for fast food meals.

“…When we used country weighed values, 94% of meals from full service restaurants and 72% of fast food meals across all sites contained at least 600 metabolizable kcal, and 3% of meals from full service restaurants…contained at least 2000 kcal/serving.” -Roberts et al, 2018, BMJ

Yes, you read that right…2,000 calories in one meal!  These results are consistent with other research that identifies restaurant meals in general, not just fast food chains specifically, as an important target for interventions to reduce obesity. Very high energy content of restaurant meals is a major hurdle to reducing rates of overweight and obesity and other metabolic diseases that stem from such conditions.

Thus, eating meals out at restaurants can be a problem for several reasons. The frequency of consuming meals prepared out of the home continues to increase globally, and the average portion sizes and energy density are disproportionate to the low energy demands we see in people with sedentary lifestyles.

Our Food Culture is Soaked in Energy Density

Other research has shown that people are unable to accurately guess the caloric content of meals with high energy density. In other words, our brains are pretty good at figuring out ballpark energy content of real food–like vegetables, fruits, starches, and proteins that are prepared simply. But once we’re facing steak dinners, pasta dishes, and peanut butter pie from our favorite restaurants, our brains have no idea how energy dense they are. And we far underestimate how much it probably is.

At no other point in human evolutionary history have we had to deal with butter-soaked filet mignon, pasta Alfredo, or ice cream made with 100 grams of sugar. And if we look at the current rates of obesity as markers of success, we clearly have no idea how to navigate this food climate.

Consuming food that we are so disconnected from uncouples our natural regulatory mechanisms. When we don’t see the ingredients, when we don’t assemble the items, and when we don’t prepare it ourselves, how would we know if that meal is appropriate for our own body? In nature, we foraged, hunted, and assembled all on our own. And it took hours–if not days. Now, we can get a plate of 2,000 calories of sugar-crusted buttery goodness in 20 minutes flat. It’s not natural.

Preparing Our Own Food is Natural

Our current food culture views cooking as tedious, and food shopping as too time consuming. We eat while driving, while standing up, while watching TV, and family dinners just take too darn long. All of this is physiologically disruptive.

I often say to people, “Sure, you can have cookies. And cake. And cupcakes. And pasta Alfredo, burritos, and ice cream. Under one condition. You have to make it yourself.” And their response is always the same. They tell me they would never eat that much because making all of that would take way too much time!

And that’s something we all need to think about carefully. In a culture that thinks cooking at home is a waste of time, but people are suffering from the consequences of such biological perturbation, perhaps it’s time to question these norms.

If you do one thing to change your nutrition this year, start preparing meals at home. Prioritize time spent with your food. Spend time selecting your ingredients, assembling them, and sharing them with the people in your household and communities. Give your children “grown-up food” so that their taste buds and bodies learn to connect with and enjoy those items. And give your body and brain the time and connection it needs to be able to accurately determine its own energy intake. Eat at home.

EATING OUT: THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

In the last decade, modern food culture has undergone a massive shift away from traditional home-cooking.  More than ever, we depend on eating meals that were prepared by others. Restaurants come in all shapes and sizes—from fast food to five-star steakhouses.  The emerging category of gourmet fast food, which purports to marry gourmet food with the speed of automated fast-food service, continues to grow in popularity.  The promise embodied by brands like Sweet Green, Cava, and B Good is one of both health and convenience that could eliminate the need for home prepared food altogether.

Dozens of my clients have echoed nearly identical sentiments:

“I eat out several times a week, but so does everyone else. Shouldn’t I be able to do that?”

“I don’t want to give up eating out. I love ‘insert restaurant name here.’”

“Making food at home would just take so much more time.”

And when I have conversations during initial evaluations, many people complain of suspicious weight gain that crept up over the past year. And they feel truly confused as to why. The conversation often goes something like this:

Client: “I’ve kept all my food habits practically the same. I eat the same breakfast every day, and I don’t really snack.”

Erin: “Do you make most of your meals at home?’

Client: “Some of them. But not all. I usually eat lunch out. And a few dinners a week are eaten out, too.”

Erin: “How many dinners a week do you eat out?”

Client: “Maybe half.”

Erin: “Has that increased over the past year?”

Client: “Maybe it has. This year has been really busy. I used to bring lunch to work. And we didn’t use to order so much takeout at night.”

Most of us don’t perceive subtle differences in our eating habits over time. We think we’re eating “pretty healthy.” But our body is telling us another story. When we aren’t in control of what’s going onto our plate, we’re not managing our nutrition. And the physiological changes can be surprising.

Excessive Energy Density is Confusing

While some people may balk at the idea of eating out less, the data continues to demonstrate that energy dense foods are more challenging to guess the caloric content of, and that restaurant meals are consistently serving up far more calories than we think.

In a recent multi-country cross-sectional study, researchers investigated the caloric content of hundreds of restaurant meals throughout the United States, Brazil, China, Finland, India, and Ghana. They placed frequently purchased menu items in bomb calorimeters to determine total energy content of the meals. Their results were startling.

“A major limitation of previous research on restaurants and obesity is that almost all studies examining the composition of meals have used nutritional data provided by large chain restaurants. This approach excludes restaurants that do not provide nutritional information, which is the case for most full service and local fast food restaurants. The limited information available on measured energy contents indicates that restaurants in general, rather than fast food restaurants specifically, provide very high energy levels. In some cases, restaurant meals supply a whole day’s energy needs in a single entrée.” – Roberts et al, 2018, BMJ

Fast food restaurants have been widely criticized for failing to provide higher-quality or lower-calorie foods choices to consumers.  In response, people often tell me that they make sure to select high-end restaurants as a safeguard against excessive calories and poor food quality.

Unfortunately, quality or price is not protective against energy density. In fact, the same study found that the total energy content of fast food meals was significantly lower than that of meals from full service restaurants in the US (29%; P<0.001). In other words, commonly purchased meals from full-service restaurants had incredibly high energy density on average. The unadjusted mean energy content for all countries was 1317 kcal for full service meals and 809 kcal for fast food meals.

“…When we used country weighed values, 94% of meals from full service restaurants and 72% of fast food meals across all sites contained at least 600 metabolizable kcal, and 3% of meals from full service restaurants…contained at least 2000 kcal/serving.” -Roberts et al, 2018, BMJ

Yes, you read that right…2,000 calories in one meal!  These results are consistent with other research that identifies restaurant meals in general, not just fast food chains specifically, as an important target for interventions to reduce obesity. Very high energy content of restaurant meals is a major hurdle to reducing rates of overweight and obesity and other metabolic diseases that stem from such conditions.

Thus, eating meals out at restaurants can be a problem for several reasons. The frequency of consuming meals prepared out of the home continues to increase globally, and the average portion sizes and energy density are disproportionate to the low energy demands we see in people with sedentary lifestyles.

Our Food Culture is Soaked in Energy Density

Other research has shown that people are unable to accurately guess the caloric content of meals with high energy density. In other words, our brains are pretty good at figuring out ballpark energy content of real food–like vegetables, fruits, starches, and proteins that are prepared simply. But once we’re facing steak dinners, pasta dishes, and peanut butter pie from our favorite restaurants, our brains have no idea how energy dense they are. And we far underestimate how much it probably is.

At no other point in human evolutionary history have we had to deal with butter-soaked filet mignon, pasta Alfredo, or ice cream made with 100 grams of sugar. And if we look at the current rates of obesity as markers of success, we clearly have no idea how to navigate this food climate.

Consuming food that we are so disconnected from uncouples our natural regulatory mechanisms. When we don’t see the ingredients, when we don’t assemble the items, and when we don’t prepare it ourselves, how would we know if that meal is appropriate for our own body? In nature, we foraged, hunted, and assembled all on our own. And it took hours–if not days. Now, we can get a plate of 2,000 calories of sugar-crusted buttery goodness in 20 minutes flat. It’s not natural.

Preparing Our Own Food is Natural

Our current food culture views cooking as tedious, and food shopping as too time consuming. We eat while driving, while standing up, while watching TV, and family dinners just take too darn long. All of this is physiologically disruptive.

I often say to people, “Sure, you can have cookies. And cake. And cupcakes. And pasta Alfredo, burritos, and ice cream. Under one condition. You have to make it yourself.” And their response is always the same. They tell me they would never eat that much because making all of that would take way too much time!

And that’s something we all need to think about carefully. In a culture that thinks cooking at home is a waste of time, but people are suffering from the consequences of such biological perturbation, perhaps it’s time to question these norms.

If you do one thing to change your nutrition this year, start preparing meals at home. Prioritize time spent with your food. Spend time selecting your ingredients, assembling them, and sharing them with the people in your household and communities. Give your children “grown-up food” so that their taste buds and bodies learn to connect with and enjoy those items. And give your body and brain the time and connection it needs to be able to accurately determine its own energy intake. Eat at home.

2019-02-02T13:29:24+00:00

About the Author:

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Erin is a graduate student working toward a Masters of Science in Nutrition and Health Promotion, as well as completing the Didactic Program in Dietetics to become a Registered Dietitian. She’s also a Precision Nutrition Certified Nutrition Coach and Certified Sports Nutritionist.