In our often time-pressed society, convenience is a way of life for many individuals. Foods and meals prepared outside of the home are an increasingly important part of the American and European diet. This is a trend that has coincided with a dramatic rise in the prevalence of obesity.
While food, wherever prepared, is not the only factor affecting body weight, away-from-home food should be an important consideration for people aiming to maintain or lose weight. A growing body of literature indicates that the eating of away-from-home food can be a factor influencing energy intake. Informed choices pertaining to away-from-home food could help reduce calorie overconsumption and aid in weight management.
In this brief, away-from-home food refers to food prepared and purchased outside of the home. This includes full meals, single ready-to-eat items, takeaway foods, and beverages purchased at restaurants, freshly-prepared food sections at grocery stores, institutional foodservice settings, and other outlets. The topic of school meals is sufficiently complex and important to merit consideration separately and is not examined here specifically.
Environmental and societal changes that may contribute to the increased consumption of away-from-home food:
A variety of factors may be contributing to the increased consumption of away-from-home food. The total number of foodservice establishments in the United States has almost doubled in the last three decades, increasing from 491,000 in 1972 to 878,000 in 2004. Furthermore, changes in the workforce, including a rise in dualincome households and women working outside the home have coincided with the demand for take-out meals and convenience
in food preparation. Regardless of the cause, away-from-home food is and will continue to be an important part of the U. S. diet. The next section of this brief reviews the properties of these foods that may facilitate the overconsumption of energy and increase obesity risk.
Some features of away-from-home foods that may facilitate over-consumption:
Eating at a restaurant may be viewed as a special opportunity for indulgence. Furthermore, the convivial atmosphere associated with restaurants and the consumption of alcohol may also contribute to overconsumption. Before reviewing the research linking the consumption of away-from-home food to energy intake and weight status, it is important to consider other properties and factors associated with away-from-home food that may contribute to overconsumption:
- High energy density
- Large portion sizes
- Variety and palatability
There is a tendency to choose foods higher in energy density when dining out. Energy density refers to the amount of calories (i.e., energy) contained in a unit of food (e.g., kcal/g). Foods high in energy density provide a relatively large number of calories for a particular weight of food; whereas, foods lower in energy density provide fewer calories in the same weight of food. High-energy-dense foods generally have a high fat content and contain few ingredients with a high moisture content such as fruits or vegetables.
Another aspect of away-from-home food that may increase consumption is the availability of large portions sizes. Large portions are increasingly common, from restaurants to supermarkets to vending machines. Portion sizes in the United States have increased both in restaurants and in the home over the past two decades. Data indicate that people consume more when served large food portions. This has been shown for a variety of different types of foods in laboratory as well as realworld settings.
Taste is a major factor influencing eating decisions. People tend to eat more of foods that taste good to them. Restaurants generally serve a variety of palatable foods, which can contribute to overconsumption. While the palatability of a particular food declines as it is consumed, the appeal of other foods is not affected. Individuals thus are apt to have higher energy intakes when a variety of highly palatable foods are available. Most laboratory-based studies showing an increase in energy intake as variety is increased have used palatable, energy-dense foods.
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