Is Eating Out Really Less Healthy Than Home Cooking?

A new study says yes—but the difference might be less than you think.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Nov 18, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

If you need another way to convince yourself not to order takeout for the second or third night this week, science may be here to help. In addition costing more, eating out regularly may be more unhealthy than cooking at home.

In a study presented this week at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association and published online in the journal Public Health Nutrition, researchers at Johns Hopkins found that people who regularly cooked at home consumed fewer calories and carbs on average, as well as lower amounts of fat and sugar.

“If a person—or someone in their household—cooks dinner frequently, regardless of whether or not they are trying to lose weight, diet quality improves,” wrote authors Julia Wolfson and Sara Bleich, both of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “This is likely due to the relatively lower energy [i.e., calorie], fat, and sugar contents in foods cooked at home compared with convenience foods or foods consumed away from home.”

What with the steady drumbeat of criticism leveled at restaurant chains by nutritionists and public health advocates for the often outlandish, gut-busting concoctions that populate menus these days (“Bruléed French Toast”—need I say more?), such findings hardly come as a shock. And consumers seem to have gotten the message: A survey released last year found that, for the first time, consumers were citing health concerns as their number one reason for eating out less, as opposed to budget constraints. Another report from the industry consulting firm NPD Group found the number of Americans eating at restaurants in 2014 has dipped to a 20-year low, despite the ecomonic recovery.

But what might be most surprising about Wolfson and Bleich’s findings is that the nutritional difference between home cooking and restaurant fare is not as hefty as you might think.

To come up with their results, Wolfson and Bleich crunched data from the 2007–2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, one of those behemoth polls that asks a legion of participants a bunch of nosy questions about their diet and excercise habits. In this case, there were more than 9,000 participants, aged 20 or older.

The researchers found that just under half of those surveyed—48 percent—cooked dinner almost every night of the week. For 8 percent of respondents, it was essentially the exact opposite: On average, they cooked dinner one night a week or less.

Those who cooked at home most frequently consumed a daily average of 2,164 calories, 81 grams of fat, and 119 grams of sugar. Those who apparently use their kitchen counter primarily to collect junk mail averaged 2,301 calories, 84 grams of fat, and 135 grams of sugar a day.

Thus, people who ate out several times a week consumed an average of 137 more calories, 3 additional grams of fat, and 16 more grams of sugar.

What does that equate to in the real world? Well, a single Nature Valley chewy granola bar (vanilla yogurt, to be exact) has 140 calories, 4 grams of fat, and 14 grams of sugar. That’s hardly the whopper of a difference you might have expected.

Wolfson acknowledged that the study didn’t consider what people meant by “cooking” when they said they cooked at home, according to the account in Time of her presentation at the APHA meeting. And as last month’s NPD report “Eating Patterns in America” puts it, “Americans now get eight out of 10 meals from home, but that does not mean that we are cooking more meals in our home.”

“You can see how Americans are making their lives easier, despite the economic limits, by looking at the foods and beverages that have become a part of more American diets,” NPD Group vice president Harry Balzer said in a release. “The real ‘Foods of the Decade’ are not hummus, quinoa, nor kale, and not even Sriracha.” Rather, they’re proccesed convenience foods eaten in the comfort of your own home instead of in a restaurant.

Among the seemingly disparate group of top 10 foods and beverages NPD found Americans consuming more of, there are some that seem healthy enough (yogurt, bottled water, fresh fruit) but more that aren’t (pizza, frozen sandwiches, potato chips and, oddly, store-bought pancakes).

“What’s the real preparation to consume these 10 items? A spoon for the yogurt and maybe a fork and knife for the pancakes!” Balzer says. “We are still leaving the cooking to others.”

So while it would be woefully premature to let America’s restaurant chains off the hook for their contribution to the ongoing obesity crisis, perhaps the next frontier is convincing Americans that what they think of as “healthy home cooking” may not be much more healthy at all.