Healthy Eating Happens in the Home

Posted 6/13/2013 by UNMC Physicians

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Dr. Birgit Khandalavala, UNMC Physicians Family Medicine, discusses how the stress can lead to fast food meal solutions and how to avoid those situations.

Almost every day a family member asks: what’s for dinner? Increasingly, the answer is something not prepared in the home. Americans now eat out for almost half of their meals compared to 36 percent in 1970. Over that time, the obesity rate has more than doubled in adults and children. It seems quite obvious there is a link between the two.

“We eat out too much,” said Birgit Khandalavala, MD, an obesity specialist at UNMC Physicians. “There are many factors leading to obesity in our society, and eating outside the home is a big one.”

According to Khandalavala, there are three main reasons restaurants are bad for dieters:
  1. Larger portion sizes, which on average is well above normal
  2. Eating out means eating with friends, which increases caloric intake by 18 percent, according to a study on the situational effects during mealtime.
  3. Variety, presentation and ambience cause people to eat more as well, according to this Journal of Consumer Research study.

“Patients often ask me how many times they should eat out,” said Khandalavala. “Personally, I try to stick to once a week. Twice is okay. Three times is too much. The average American eats out five times a week, which is just way too often. I also tell them that eating out includes ordering in at work or having something delivered.”

Serving Platter of Today, compared to a 1950s dinner plate and the recommended portion size plate

By far the most common reason people eat out is for convenience.

“For working mothers, the most stressful time is after work, when women's stress hormone levels rise,” Khandalavala said. “Women’s cortisone levels rise and their primal instinct is to provide. When you've been running around all day, get home at 6 and it's going to take another hour to cook for a bunch of hungry people. It becomes very easy to hop in the car and go to a restaurant. But what if dinner was a quick stir fry or a two-minute microwave away?”

Khandalavala recommends cooking in bulk and eating at home most of the week. Or, for variety, cook a few meals or have different variations to alternate between, such as chicken and rice with different sauce and veggie options for each night. Moms don't have to do it alone, either. Cooking can be a fun family event, but the key is remembering to plan.

"Meal replacement is also an effective option, especially for people who are psychologically addicted to junk food," Khandalavala said.

Meal replacement means having healthy shakes or pre-packaged dinners like Smart Ones.

"If it's all you have with you, it's easy and you've already bought it, chances are you will eat it,” Khandalavala said.

Fast food may seem like a cheaper option, but despite price hikes in supermarkets, cooking remains the better option with smart meal planning and large enough quantities.

Supermarkets are the best place to shop. They have cheaper and healthier foods than convenience stores. In fact, a large study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that across four states the neighborhoods with more supermarkets and fewer convenience stores had comparatively lower obesity rates.

Even if that drive-thru special seems cheaper than a hamburger from the store, think again.

"Fast food especially contains a lot of what I call junk calories," Khandalavala said. "So while you may be getting a good value on a cost-per-calorie basis, you could probably eat something much healthier for a similar cost at home."

"Eating healthier for life is all about changing your habits and thought process," Khandalavala said. "When you do go out, make it a treat rather than a routine."

Confronting one’s weight and diet is no easy task, but cooking at home more often is a good first step for many Americans hoping to avoid becoming another statistic in the obesity epidemic. Home is where the health is, and health should start with the hearth.

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