Fast vs. Restaurant Food

None — Obesity in the U.S.

Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reports 68 percent of American adults are overweight (have a BMI of 25 to 29) and 33.8 percent are obese (BMI of 30 or higher). It's not just an adult problem. Nearly 32 percent of children (2 to 19) are overweight and roughly 17 percent are obese. Since 1980, the rate of obesity among U.S. children has tripled.

In both adults and children, excess weight is bad for the body. Obese adults are at higher risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, stroke, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, gallbladder disease, sleep apnea, respiratory problems and some types of cancer. Roughly 80 percent of overweight children never lose the excess weight and become overweight adults. However, because of the longer time they carry the excess weight, many of these children will develop health complications at any earlier age than people who gain excess weight during adulthood.

Eating Out

Compared to earlier generations, Americans spend more of their food dollars eating food prepared outside the home. Researchers report in 1970, roughly 26 percent of food dollars were spent on away meals. By 2001, meals prepared outside the home accounted for 47 percent of the average household food spending. On any given day, one in four Americans eats some type of fast food meal.

Eating food prepared outside the home may save time for a busy family. However, there is less control over the nutritional quality of the food. In general, these meals tend to be higher in calories, saturated fat, cholesterol, sugar and sodium. Consumers who eat out (or use take-out) are less likely to eat fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products. Purchased meals often contain much larger portions, leading many diners to consume far more calories than they would in a home meal. In many cases, a buffet is even a worse option because it tempts diners to overindulge in all the food offerings.

Restaurant or Fast Food?

Between restaurant and fast food, restaurant meals are often seen as the "healthier" of the two dining options. Fast foods are often fried and loaded with saturated fat and sodium. Until recently, there were few, if any, healthy options available on fast food menus. Since fast food tends to be cheaper (and faster than dining in a restaurant), it is a popular choice among families looking for a quick, low-cost meal away from home.

Researchers comparing fast food meals and restaurant meals, however, made some surprising findings. Both fast food and restaurant meals provide larger portion sizes and many more calories compared to home cooked meals. However, a typical fast food meal had fewer calories than the average sit-down restaurant meal. James Binkley, Ph.D., Researcher at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN, says that's because fast food options are smaller than comparable table service items (think about the size of a fast food burger versus one from a sit-down restaurant). One caveat in this finding is that people who eat restaurant meals were less likely to be hungry later on, presumably because of the larger food portions.

Still, fast food meals tend to contain mostly calorie-dense, fried, salty foods. In the long run, eating more often at fast food establishments may take a toll on the waist line. A different study found people who eat fast food are more likely to have a higher BMI after seven years compared to those who eat at table restaurants.

Making Good Choices

Experts say the best way to eat healthy is to prepare your meals at home, using plenty of fruits, whole grains and vegetables and limiting saturated fat, salt and sugar. If you decide to eat out, here are some tips:

Read the menu to make better choices. Restaurants will, or must, provide nutritional information for their foods. Some places even mark healthier food options with a special symbol. Fried foods are just as bad at a table service restaurant as they are at a fast food establishment. Choose a plain baked potato or salad instead of french fries. If possible, choose steamed veggies. Ask how food is prepared. Many restaurants will accommodate low-fat cooking requests. Avoid foods with a creamy sauce. Splurge with a healthy dessert, like sorbet, low-fat frozen yogurt or fruit.

Take some food home. Most restaurants serve huge portions of food. We overeat because we don't want to waste good, expensive food. Instead of stuffing your stomach, divide the food in half right away. Eat one half and take the other half home. (That's one less meal you have to make the next day.)

Go easy on the alcohol. This isn't exactly in the food category. However, alcoholic drinks can quickly sabotage the diet. First, alcohol inhibits good judgment. So you may eat more than you had planned, or be tempted to eat the wrong foods. Second, many alcoholic drinks contain a significant number of calories, negating your attempts to reduce the total calorie content of your meal.

Look for healthy fast food options. If you choose to go the fast-food route, be careful about the foods you select. Choose grilled chicken rather than fried. Instead of fries, opt for a side salad or low-fat yogurt and fruit. Choose low-fat dressing for your salad. Skip the soda and go for low-fat milk or a bottle of water.