Home cooking is still the best way to control the calories, fat, sugar and other nutrients that families consume, a new U.S. study suggests.
Researchers found that eating food from restaurants - whether from fast food places, or better establishments - led to increases in calories, fat and sodium compared to meals made at home.
Public health interventions targeting dining-out behavior in general, rather than just fast food, may be warranted to improve the way Americans' eat, says the study's author.
Ruopeng An, a professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, noted that people have previously equated fast food with junk food.
"But, people don't know much about the food provided by full-service restaurants and if it is better or healthier compared to fast food or compared to food prepared and consumed at home," An told Reuters Health.
For his study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, An used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which regularly gathers health and dietary information from a representative sample of the U.S. population.
More than 18,000 adults answered survey questions about what they'd eaten over a two-day period. About a third of participants reported eating fast food on one or both days, and one quarter reported eating full-service restaurant food on at least one day.
Compared to participants who ate food prepared at home, those who visited fast food restaurants consumed an average of 190 more calories per day, 11 grams more fat, 3.5 g more saturated fat, 10 mg extra cholesterol and 300 mg additional sodium.
Participants who dined at full-service restaurants consumed about 187 more calories per day compared to those who ate food prepared at home, 10 more grams of fat, 2.5 g more saturated fat, almost 60 mg more cholesterol and over 400 mg more sodium.
The impact of fast food consumption on daily total calorie intake was largest among participants with the least education, while participants in the middle-income range were more likely to get their extra calories from full-service restaurants.
Participants who were obese were also more likely to consume extra calories from full-service restaurants compared to people who were normal weight or overweight.
When An compared calorie and nutrient intake of restaurant food taken home to eat, he found there wasn't much difference between eating fast food out or at home, but full-service restaurant meals consumed at home had about 80 fewer calories, slightly less fat and about 80 mg less sodium.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires restaurants with 20 or more locations to provide calorie content and nutrient content in the menu labeling, but that's not applied to most full-service restaurants, An pointed out. "So people who consume food at full-service restaurants are not aware of the calorie and nutrient content in the food served (and) are more likely to overeat and are less cautious about the extra calories they intake from the full-service restaurant."
Lori Rosenthal, a dietitian at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, was not surprised by the findings.
"When we prepare our own meals we know exactly what the foods we are eating contain," Rosenthal, who wasn't involved in the study, told Reuters Health by email.
"When dining out, we are leaving the ingredients to the chef or fast food chain," she said. "When we make our own, we are in control."
Rosenthal said cooking at home lets people make healthy substitutions, such as swapping out full-fat cheese for reduced fat versions.
She added that people are more likely to have "cheat meals" or "splurges" in restaurants than at home, but certain habits can help curb the calories.
"Before heading to a restaurant look up the menu online," she said. "This helps to avoid succumbing to the pressure of ordering before reading all of the options."
Rosenthal also suggests, "Don't be afraid to ask how menu items are prepared and stick to those that are baked, broiled, grilled or steamed." Also, "Choose dishes that contain vegetables (i.e. veggie omelet, kabobs or pasta primavera) or request they be added." Vegetables bulk up a meal, so a person feels more satisfied without adding many more calories, she said.
Rosenthal advises asking for a to-go container and packing up half of a large meal right way, ordering an appetizer as a meal or sharing your food with a friend.
"Be mindful and slow down," she added. "Take the time to chew, taste and savor your food - you'll naturally eat less and enjoy your meal even more."
SOURCE: European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, online July 1, 2015.