Is Commercially Prepared Food Responsible for Childhood Weight Gain?

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More American families are eating out than ever before, but what impact are all of those out-of-home meals having on health, not to mention our waistlines?

In the first study to examine the relationship between where food is prepared and increased calorie consumption, researchers report that eating commercially-made food can lead children to take in more calories than if they had eaten similar meals at home. And with most Americans taking in about a third of their daily calories from restaurants or other vendors, such trends can only contribute to climbing childhood obesity rates.

In the study released today in the August issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, scientists looked at the eating habits of 29, 217 children aged 2 to 18  between 1977 and 2006.  They recorded where the food they ate came from, as well as where the youngsters were actually consuming the food, and included meals prepared outside of the home, but eaten at home (take out, pre-packaged supermarket meals) and foods consumed outside of the home (restaurant meals, on-the-go snacks). Fast food meals accounted for the largest percentage of foods prepared away from home for all ages and even surpassed meals from the school cafeteria in terms of calories consumed. But for foods eaten away from home, store-bought meals beat out all other sources, accounting for the largest percentage of daily calories eaten outside of the home. Fast food was increasingly eaten at home while store-bought prepared foods were now more likely to be eaten on the go.

The study authors, from University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, found that during the nearly 30 year period they analyzed, children and teens ate an average of 179 calories more a day, while the percentage of meals eaten and/or prepared outside of the house increased by 31%, now accounting for one-third of all calories consumed overall.

“The differences in energy intake by eating location revealed in this analysis demonstrate that eating location is an important factor in the diet of American children,” said Barry M. Popkin, a professor of nutrition and the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “Further studies of children’s diet focusing on energy intake and nutritional quality by eating location are warranted, particularly for store-purchased food overall, carry-out or drive-thru fast food, and hot-and-ready vs. home-prepared foods.”

Why do away-from-home meals contain so many calories? For one, the ingredients that are most responsible for weight gain, including sugars and fats, are also the tastiest, and many commercial food manufacturers load up their products and meals with what they believe will appeal to consumers’ taste buds. Portion sizes at restaurants also tend to be larger than what’s served up in a home kitchen, encouraging overeating. People may also eat more when they’re on the go, since it’s easier to lose track of calories when you’re not sitting down for a proper meal.

The results shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but the numbers should help parents and doctors to realize another important lesson in nutrition — not just for kids but for all of us. When it comes to eating, it’s not just what you eat but where and how you eat that can have an effect on your health and your waistline.

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