Eating out of home means you run a fair chance of ingesting more calories and fat, and less micronutrients like vitamin C, iron and calcium. And people nowadays eat more out of house, also in developing countries. So conclude scientists from the Antwerp Institute of Tropical Medicine, upon reviewing more than seven thousand studies. They report in the journal Obesity Reviews.
The last few decades, we more and more eat out of home: in school canteens and company restaurants, from vending machines, at food stalls, with friends, somewhere on the road, in lunch rooms and bistros. The growing urbanisation made such food more easily available, and the growing number of two-earner households left less time for home cooking. This trend also applies to many developing countries. Health is certainly not the motive for this evolution; on the contrary, it is to be expected that it brings health risks with it.
The scientists evaluated 7139 publications in peer reviewed journals - in other words, articles that had been checked before publication by competent colleagues. Nevertheless, only 29 met the criteria of the ITM researchers. (Not necessarily because they were unsound - though some of them were - but because they often only indirectly touched upon the 'out of home' aspect, or they only looked at one food source, for instance school meals.) Those 29 the scientists analysed further.
Food consumed out of house was an important source of energy in all age groups, and certainly in youngsters. Some of them realised half their energy intake out of home. The higher the socioeconomic status, the more people ate out - but also the healthier they ate. People eating out of home on average consumed more fat and calories, and less micronutrients. With all the consequences for the figure.
Overweight people indicated that eating out of home was an important impediment in sticking to a diet. During the last decades, eating out of home gained importance, and it looks like today's youngsters will take their eating habits with them when growing older.
In the United States, where fast food is the dominant calorie source, men got a quarter of their energy out of home (women 15%). In Spain, where people mostly eat out of home in restaurants, it only amounted to half that number. In northern Europe, where the company canteen is the first source, eating out of home delivers between 15% en 33% of energy. In Kenya, where people chiefly eat from food stalls along the streets, men got 20% of their energy intake out of home. A third of the Belgian population above 15 years of age obtain more than a quarter of their calories out of home; that group also eats less fruits and vegetables than the average Belgian.
In most studies food eaten out of home was fatter, and often also saltier, than at home. In most cases it contained less vitamin A, vitamin C, fibres and calcium. In Europe, eating out of home also was correlated with eating more sweets.
The most evident places to influence the diet of the average earthling are school refectories, company canteens and fast-food restaurants. A 'fat tax' probably will mostly affect the diet choice of richer people, the scientists suppose, because that group already is more conscious about its eating habits.
In the meantime the researchers tested some simple interventions in a student restaurant. At lunch, they gave the students two portions of fruit and one serving of vegetables for free. As a consequence, those students ate 80 grams of fruits and 108 grams of vegetables more than customers who got nothing offered. What is more, they also ate more vegetables at diner. In other words: they were closer to the recommended daily intake of fruits and vegetables, and they had a better eating profile, at lunch and during the rest of the day. So it can be done.