March 31, 2022

The Costs of Eating Out

In 2019, during the COVID-19 pandemic, I primarily stayed at home to avoid sickness. As a result, I was consuming less food because I just ate what was already in the refrigerator rather than going out to lunch. That year, my doctor said that I was one of her few patients who lost weight during the pandemic. Fast forward to 2022, when I resumed work and started going out for lunch again. Two weeks after returning to the office, my doctor told me that I had gained 8 pounds--in two weeks! Not only did weight gain reoccur, but I was spending $400 on lunch a month! And every time I went to my favorite diner, I would see signs that read, “If you really liked us, you would eat more.” Obviously, I complied!

And then I came upon an article titled “How much Is Eating Out At Restaurants Really Costing you?” According to the article: About one in five Americans visit a fast-food restaurant at least once a week, and more than seven in 10 Americans eat lunch at a fast-food restaurant. All told, Americans are eating meals out, on average, five times a week. And that convenience comes with some serious costs.

1. Weight Gain

The USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion reviewed research examining the correlation between eating out – especially at fast-food restaurants – and weight gain. It found that fast-food intake directly correlates to weight gain in children, even if they only eat out once a week. In adults, one study showed that eating fast food more than once a week resulted in increased BMI. BMI, or body mass index, measures whether you’re underweight, overweight, or within medically acceptable weight parameters. Other studies also show a correlation between eating out and weight gain.

These findings are especially concerning against the backdrop of America’s continued obesity epidemic. About 90 million U.S. adults, or roughly 40% or the population, are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Any adult with a BMI between 25 and 30 is overweight, and more than 30 is considered obese. Nearly 14 million children between the ages of 2 and 19, or 18.5% of the population, are obese.

2. Health Issues

Obesity leads to heart disease, which leads to about 800,000 deaths each year in the United States. Obesity also leads to high blood pressure, which can cause strokes. Some 75 million Americans suffer from high blood pressure, and nearly 800,000 people each year have a stroke, which is the fifth-leading cause of death.

Other obesity-related health issues include sleep apnea, diabetes, gout, gallbladder disease, and gallstones.

3. Financial Costs

Being obese also costs a lot of money. Those with obesity spend more money on health care than those who are not obese – an average of $1,429 more per person per year.

There’s also the sheer cost of eating out itself. The average U.S. household spends $3,000 per year eating out, according to BLS statistics reported by Business Insider. The numbers fluctuate significantly by age group, however. Generation X, or those between the ages of 35 and 44, spend $4,249 per household per year. Those in the 45-to-54 age bracket spend slightly less, at $4,157.

Why Eating Out Is So Bad for Us

Most of the medical studies connecting eating out with weight gain look at fast food. But fast food isn’t the only culprit. Mid-priced and fine dining restaurants can also help you add pounds. Here’s why.

1. Higher Calories

How restaurants prepare foods has a significant impact on how healthy those foods are. Fried foods add calories, as do the heavy creams and sauces dousing certain foods. Even vegetables can be made unhealthy by adding butter and salt; sure, it tastes good, but there goes all the nutritional value. The same goes for fish; a nice piece of salmon with lemon becomes calorie hell if you add hollandaise to it.

The USDA recommends an average adult male should consume 2,500 calories per day, and the average adult female should consume 2,000. In 1970, the average American took in 2,160 calories per day. By 2010, we were ingesting an average of 2,673 calories daily. It’s no surprise that since the 1970s, childhood obesity rates in the United States have tripled.

2. Bigger Portions

The sheer size of our meals has also changed dramatically over the last 20 years. Some of this has to do with plate size. Plates and portions today are enormous by historical standards. In the 1960s, the average plate size was 7 to 9 inches in diameter. Today, dinner plates are 11 to 12 inches in diameter. The larger the plate, the more you can put on it.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s “Portion Distortion” page outlines how meals have changed over the last 20 years. Here are some of its findings:

  • Bagels are more than twice as large, increasing from 3 inches in diameter and 140 calories to 6 inches in diameter and 350 calories. That doesn’t include butter or cream cheese.
  • Cheeseburgers have increased from 333 to 590 calories, on average. Of course, if you’re going to have a cheeseburger, you’ll likely also have fries and a drink, which adds even more calories.
  • Spaghetti portions are on the rise. One cup of spaghetti and three small meatballs is 500 calories. But a portion you’re more likely to see today, two cups of spaghetti and three large meatballs, contains 1,025 calories.
  • French fry servings are bigger too. A 2.4-ounce portion contains 210 calories. Today’s 6.9-ounce portion has 610 calories.

Again, this isn’t limited to fast foods. There are plenty of meals at sit-down restaurants that break the calorie bank in one sitting.

Texas Roadhouse has a 16-ounce prime rib meal that’s 1,570 calories without sides. Add a Caesar salad and a baked sweet potato loaded with marshmallows and caramel sauce, and you’re at 2,820 calories.

The Dickie’s Barbecue Pit three-meat plate has a mouth-watering combo of beef brisket, polish sausage, and pork ribs with two sides. Add some ice cream for dessert, and you’re at 2,500 calories.

The Cheesecake Factory has an amazing Pasta Napoletana chock full of bacon, pepperoni, Italian sausage, and meatballs. It’s 2,310 calories.

Even at fine dining establishments, the calories add up. Steakhouses offer sauces, such as hollandaise, that add hundreds of calories to a meal. A steak without any sides clocks in at over 1,000 calories unless you order the smallest fillet on the menu. By the time you add sides, you’ve blown your daily calorie count in one meal.

Final Word

It’s not realistic to think that people won’t ever eat out. Between birthdays, Valentine’s Day, graduations, and other occasions, there’s always a reason to eat out from time to time. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The key is figuring out a balance between eating out and eating out too much.

Eating at home will help your diet and your weight. You’ll know what you’re putting in your body, and you can avoid fat, sodium, and other byproducts that aren’t the best for you. You can use the money you save by cooking at home to pay down debt or add to your retirement savings. Plus, cooking is great family time, especially in an era when we’re working longer hours with longer commutes. You’ll build a lifetime of memories with your family, just as I have with my grandmother.

And, when you become debt free, you can celebrate with a nice meal.

How often do you eat out?

Over a quarter of the U.S. food dollar is spent on eating-out services

For a typical dollar spent in 2020 by U.S. consumers on domestically produced food, including both grocery store and eating-out purchases, 27.9 cents went to foodservice establishments such as restaurants and other eating-out places. The foodservice share of the food dollar decreased after 9 years of gains as households shifted to food-at-home consumption during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. For the remainder of the food dollar, transportation (4.1 cents) and wholesale trade (11.9 cents) rose to their highest shares reported in the series, which provides statistics back to 1993.


Gary W. Lendermon

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