Obesity has become a public health crisis in the United States, in part, because Americans are consuming more calories than they did 30 years ago. A large part of that is due to the increased consumption of foods prepared away from home, such as ready-to-eat items available at restaurants, grocery store food counters, and fast-food eateries.
A panel funded by the FDA, the Keystone Forum, looked at the association between "away-from-home foods" and the growing girth of Americans. The average American now eats more than four meals a week that are prepared away from home. These foods are often higher in fats and calories than foods made at home and are often served in larger portions.
The obesity crisis
About 68 percent of American adults today are overweight or obese. More than 19 percent of children ages 6 to 11 are considered obese, as are 18 percent of teens ages 12 to 19. Doctors define being overweight as having a body mass index (BMI) of 25 to 29.9; obesity is having a BMI of 30 or greater.
Obesity is caused by eating more calories each day on average than you expend. Calories not used up through daily activities are stored as fat.
On average, Americans are consuming more calories today than they did three decades ago. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, men consumed 2,450 calories a day in 1971, and women consumed 1,542. In 2000, the numbers were 2,618 for men and 1,877 for women.
Overweight and obesity are associated with many health conditions and diseases, and premature death. The extra pounds also carry significant economic costs. The medical expenses tied to overweight and obesity have reached $92.6 billion per year, or 9.1 percent of all medical spending.
Americans are eating more foods prepared away from home than ever before. In 1977 to 1978, people got about 18 percent of their daily calories from these kinds of foods; in 1995, the percentage had risen to 34 percent. Eating take-out or eating out more often is not the only reason for the obesity epidemic, but it is an important factor for many people. Recent studies suggest an association between eating away from home and overweight and obesity in children and teens. Although a direct relationship between away-from-home foods and childhood obesity has not been established, it is clear that away-from-home foods make up a significant part of many children's diets.
The Keystone Forum, which released its report in May 2006, also made these observations:
Frequently eating foods prepared away from home is associated with obesity, higher body fat and a higher BMI.
Women who eat foods prepared outside the home more than five times per week consume about 290 more calories on average each day than women who eat these foods less often.
Eating more fast-food meals is linked to eating more calories, more saturated fat, fewer fruits and vegetables, and less milk.
The forum also made recommendations for the food industry to improve choices of low-calorie foods and suggested ways consumers can make better food choices to help them prevent weight gain when they eat away-from-home foods.
Other food trends
The forum looked at other changes in American eating habits that have contributed to the obesity epidemic:
Food is cheaper for Americans than it used to be. In 1970, 15.3 percent of each person’s disposable income was spent on food; in 2004, food was 10.8 percent.
More of Americans’ total food budget is used for away-from-home foods. Out-of-home food expenditures accounted for 26.3 percent of total food costs per person in 1970, but 46 percent in 2002.
People dine out more frequently. Sixteen percent of all meals and snacks were eaten out in 1977 to 1978; that rose to 27 percent in 1995. Consequently, a greater proportion of calories and nutrients now come from away-from-home food sources. Away-from-home foods provided 34 percent of total calories in 1995, nearly double the 18 percent in 1977 to 1978; these foods made up 38 percent of total fat intake in 1995 versus 18 percent in 1977 to 1978.
Americans now have access to more and more opportunities to select and eat away-from-home foods. The total number of food-service establishments in the United States has almost doubled in the last three decades; from 491,000 in 1972 to 878,000 in 2004.
Portion sizes in this country have increased both in restaurants and in the home over the past two decades. Although the trend began in the 1970s, larger portion sizes became more common in the 1980s and 1990s.
Other researchers have pointed to several other changes in the food supply and eating habits that have added to the obesity problem:
The wide availability of 32-ounce (or more) sizes of soft drinks. A drink that large adds 720 calories to the daily total.
The widespread use of fructose as a sweetener by the food industry. Researchers speculate that fructose tends to override our sense of feeling full.
A wide variety of flavors in our diet. Research has found that more variety leads people to eat more.
In addition to food being cheaper and more available, many Americans have experienced changes in lifestyle that may also have contributed to this country's weight problem:
In married households, both spouses are working more, taking time away from exercise and meal preparation at home. In 1970, a married couple spent 53 hours a week out of the home; in 2000, a couple spent 63 hours in a work week out of the home.
More adults spend more time commuting each day, diminishing the time available for cooking, exercise, family time, and other activities. The average time commuting to and from work daily rose from 21.7 minutes each way in 1980 to 24.4 minutes each way in 2000.
Households have the television on almost a quarter of the time more than was the case 30 years ago. In 1970, nearly 6 hours a day was spent watching television; in 2000, this time had increased to more than 7.5 hours day. (This does not take into account time spent in front of computers.)
High school students are less likely to attend physical education class daily than they were a decade ago. The percentage of U.S. schools requiring some form of physical education declines with advancing grade levels, from 50 percent of fifth-graders to only 5 percent of seniors. In 1991, 41.6 percent of high school students attended physical education class daily; in 2003, only 28.4 percent attended physical education class daily.
Advertisements and marketing for food now can be found not only on television and in print, but also as products seen in TV shows, films and video games, as toy and other promotional giveaways, and on the Internet.
What to do
Some restaurants and fast-food eateries have already made changes to their menus, such as offering the choice of smaller portions and lower-calorie options. Until more food-service establishments make similar changes, it's up to you to make changes in your own eating and lifestyle habits to keep your weight under control.
The forum recommends that you pay attention to the types of foods and portion sizes when buying away-from-home. To help manage your weight, make sure that you balance the amount of calories you eat against the amount of daily exercise you get.
For more information
To learn more about appropriate portion sizes and the types of foods you should be eating, and to calculate how many calories you need for your current level of physical activity, go to the USDA's Choose My Plate website.