How Eating Out Impacts Your Health

Restaurant meal

 Oscar Wong/Getty Images

Eating out is an enjoyable way to connect socially, try new foods, and take a break from cooking. But some Americans are eating many of their meals away from home. This practice can replace nutrient-rich home cooking and lead to health issues. In fact, a new study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics looked at how the frequency of eating takeout or restaurant meals is associated with mortality.

"When cooking at home, you can control every aspect of what you’re preparing—the ingredients, cooking methods, portion sizes," says dietitian Julie Balsamo, MS, RDN, owner of Nutrition By Julie. But this is not always the case in restaurants.

Even though some restaurants provide high-quality foods, studies show that the overall dietary quality for restaurant meals—especially fast food—is lower when compared with meals cooked at home. In fact, past studies have shown a link between eating out frequently and an increased risk for weight gain and type 2 diabetes. Here's what you need to know about eating out on a consistent basis.

Overall, this study looked for associations between dining out and overall mortality rates. What they discovered is that those who dine out twice or more per day showed an increased risk for death.

What the Research Says

The researchers used data from the National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey 1999-2014. The study included 35,084 adults 20 years or older, who reported their frequency of eating meals prepared away from home.

The researchers then looked at death records and compared the frequency of dining out with early death, cardiovascular mortality, and cancer mortality. The follow-up time for the study was 16.75 years.

Lisa Young, PhD, RDN

Restaurant meals are also higher in fat, sugar, and sodium and tend to be higher in refined grains and lower in fiber.

— Lisa Young, PhD, RDN

After adjusting for age, sex, race, socioeconomic status, BMI, dietary and lifestyle factors, the researchers found that frequent consumption of takeout or restaurant meals (two or more meals per day) was significantly associated with an increased risk of early death, compared to people who dine out less than once a week.

"When dining out, we consume more calories as portion sizes are big, and tend to be bigger than our home-cooked meals," says Lisa Young, PhD, RDN, a dietitian and nutritionist in private practice. "Restaurant meals are also higher in fat, sugar, and sodium and tend to be higher in refined grains and lower in fiber."

There was a non-significant association of frequent restaurant meals with cardiovascular and cancer mortality, which the researchers say can be explained by the relatively small sample size. Future studies are necessary to further explore the connections between dining out and mortality.

Why Frequent Eating Out Impacts Health

Researchers suggest there is a relationship between dining out often and a shortened lifespan. In other words, if you eat out twice a day or more, you could be putting your health at risk.

There could be several possible explanations for this connection between dining out and an increased risk for death. For instance, restaurant food has more saturated fat and sodium, fewer vegetables, and less calcium, iron, and fiber than food prepared at home.

Likewise, they indicate that people who dine out frequently take in higher levels of phthalates compared to those who eat more home-cooked meals. Phthalates, which are chemicals that make plastics stronger, can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Dining out frequently also may indicate a busy, stressful lifestyle, which adds health burdens as well.

How to Eat Out Mindfully

Going to dinner or lunch is a common way for people to celebrate special occasions or connect with friends and coworkers. But dietitian Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, LD, of Street Smart Nutrition says that sometimes, the missing “X factor” of restaurant meals is the satisfaction piece.

"These meals are often eaten in a highly stimulating environment, or when you’re stressed or in a rush," she says. "All of this can contribute to a less mindful eating experience, making it harder to connect with hunger or fullness cues, [contributing] to eating past fullness, or eating very quickly," says Harbstreet.

When compared to eating at home in a more relaxed state, eating out may make it harder to finish a meal and feel truly satisfied as well as comfortably full, Harbstreet explains.

Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, LD,

For those who dine out more often, there are always subtle shifts you can make to improve the overall quality of your meal.

— Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, LD,

Tips for Dining Out Occasionally

With busy lives, it is inevitable that people will enjoy restaurant meals from time to time. And that's OK. You can definitely incorporate dining out into an overall healthy lifestyle.

"For those who rarely go out to eat, I see nothing wrong with splurging and enjoying the meal of your choosing," says Balsamo. "One meal will never make or break your progress." 

Harbstreet agrees. In fact, she says that she rarely discourages her clients from eating in restaurants.

"As a non-diet dietitian who advocates for intuitive eating, I don’t discourage meals from restaurants," she says. "I recognize that many clients struggle with meal planning, time, and confidence in the kitchen, and meals prepared by someone else can alleviate some of this burden."

Tips for Dining Out Frequently

Whether you are someone with a hectic schedule, hate to cook, or you just like the convenience of eating out, there are things you can do to make sure your choices are nourishing. For example, Harbstreet advises clients to prioritize menu options like fruit, vegetables, seafood, and whole grains because they hit some of the shortfall nutrients that many Americans are missing.

"For those who dine out more often, there are always subtle shifts you can make to improve the overall quality of your meal," says Harbstreet.

Rather than avoid dining out, Harbstreet, Young, and Balsamo teach clients how to make nutritious choices when dining out. Here are some things that they suggest:

  • Enjoy dishes that are grilled, roasted, or baked.
  • Watch portion sizes or share with friends.
  • Enjoy vegetables in different forms (including soups, salads, and side dishes).
  • Minimize the use of salty condiments like soy sauce, BBQ sauce, and fish sauce.
  • Drink water instead of soda or at least skip the free refills.
  • Limit alcohol intake at restaurants.
  • Choose fiber-rich foods such as whole grains, beans, and lentils.
  • Order foods prepared with oil instead of butter or lard.
  • Ask for substitutions such as adding lean protein to a salad or swapping fries for a vegetable.
  • Pay attention to hunger and fullness cues, and don't finish huge portions if you feel full.
  • Be selective with where you choose to dine.

"As more of a focus has begun to be put on health and nutrition, I’ve found that many restaurants are now offering more nutritious and nutrient-dense options," Balsamo adds.

A Word From Verywell

Not only can eating out be enjoyable, but it also is a normal part of life. Still, it should be balanced with home-cooked meals when you can. If you dine out twice a day or more, you may want to choose restaurants with nutritious options, consider portion sizes, and opt for more vegetables.

You also may want to limit soda and alcohol. And, if you would like suggestions on how to change your dining patterns, talk with a healthcare provider or a registered dietitian for advice.

4 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. McGuire S, Todd JE, Mancino L, Lin B-H. The impact of food away from home on adult diet quality. ERR-90, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Econ. Res. Serv February 2010. Adv Nutr. 2011;2(5):442-443. doi:10.3945/an.111.000679

  3. Bezerra IN, Curioni C, Sichieri R. Association between eating out of home and body weight. Nutr Rev. 2012;70(2):65-79. doi:10.1111/j.1753-4887.2011.00459.x

  4. Cahill LE, Pan A, Chiuve SE, et al. Fried-food consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes and coronary artery disease: a prospective study in 2 cohorts of US women and men. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014;100(2):667-75. doi:10.3945/ajcn.114.084129

By Cara Rosenbloom, RD
 Cara Rosenbloom RD is a dietitian, journalist, book author, and the founder of Words to Eat By, a nutrition communications company in Toronto, ON.