Where Are Our Calories Coming From?

Did you know that a USDA report concludes that eating just one meal away from home each week translates into 2 extra pounds of weight gain each year for an average adult? Yikes! And yet, it’s understandable to me, since most of us don’t eat as healthfully away from home as we do when we eat at home. It’s also known that meals eaten away from home are generally higher in calories and lower in nutritional quality than those prepared and eaten at home.

For many of us, eating out is part of our routine. Eating meals away from home—be they at school, at work or at restaurants—is a way of life, a weekly or even daily occurrence. But just who is eating what foods, and where are they getting it? These questions were addressed in a recently-released analysis of data from multiple years of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES). The report sheds some light on the most common food purchase locations and which specific foods are contributing the most energy to the diets of US children and adults.

Cooking in a Pan
Cooking in a Pan / Rene Schwietzke / CC BY 2.0

Eating Out vs. Cooking In

The researchers found that the adults aged 20-50-group got the highest proportion of their calories from restaurants. Just over 25% of their dietary energy came from meals obtained from both quick-service and full-service restaurants. This group was followed closely by the 12-19 age group, with slightly less than a quarter of their calories coming from restaurants.

While that’s quite a significant chunk of our calories, what it says to me is that we ought to be worrying less about asking for “dressing on the side” and more about what we’re purchasing at the supermarket—and how we’re cooking it once we get home. Since 64% to 76% of our energy intake (depending on age group) comes from food stores, it would behoove our national health status to make smarter decisions in the aisles. And as for how this correlates with the one-meal-translates-to-two-pounds report from above, researchers believe that can be partly explained by surmising that we likely don’t compensate for restaurant meals by eating more healthfully at home…and that’s fodder for another blog post!

The Caloric Culprits

Top caloric contributors varied by age group, as one would expect, but two specific food categories were major energy sources across all age groups: grain-based desserts (hello, cookies and cakes) and yeast breads. Other top sources of calories included (in no particular order):

  • soda/energy/sports drinks
  • pizza
  • beef
  • chicken/chicken dishes
  • burgers and French fries
  • pasta
  • potato chips/corn chips
  • alcoholic beverages

Now What?

What can we do with this information? Well, public health policy-makers can utilize the information (such as how much of the soda we drink comes from restaurants) to help guide policy development. We as individuals can use it to help ourselves while shopping. Given that the bulk of our calories are coming from foods we purchase at stores, analyses such as this can help us key in on specific food groups to pay attention to shopping.

Just knowing which types of foods are the biggest calorie contributors may make it easier to modify our food choices. For instance, when shopping we can think twice about purchasing full-test soda and opt for a lower-calorie version or non-calorie water (tap water is an option too, of course). Realizing that chicken is a major calorie contributor might make us more inclined to swap the breaded, frozen patties for un-breaded chicken or turkey burgers. Using the Guiding Stars tags throughout the store is another way to easily identify the most healthful choices within categories of foods. If Guiding Stars isn’t available in your area, use the Shopper app to help you navigate your local store.

Like most things in life, we have choices when it comes to purchasing foods—what we choose and where we buy it are up to us.