How often do you eat out or order restaurant food in? Long work hours, two-wage-earner families with too little time, and people constantly on the go have helped make eating away from home far more common than it was twenty years ago.

Restaurant and fast food are notoriously high in fat and sodium, and low in nutrients. So relying on away from home (AFH) meals or fast food, rather than cooking yourself, can be hazardous to your health.

In fact, you can pretty much predict a person's cholesterol levels if you know how often they eat out, according to a new report. People who ate six or more away from home meals per week had a higher body mass index (BMI) and lower high-density lipoprotein (HDL or “good”) cholesterol, a molecule that helps clear excess cholesterol from the blood, than those who ate out less often.

The mean BMI of those who ate out more often was higher. People who ate more fast food also had lower levels of HDL (good) cholesterol.

Frequent AFH diners also had lower levels of nutrients sourced mostly from plants circulating in their blood.

Most Americans do not eat a diet that adheres to the recommended dietary guidelines. And the increasing frequency with which Americans eat out will not bring them any more in line with these recommendations.

As long as Americans continue to eat out frequently, what is needed are “smaller portion sizes and expansion of options for whole grains, vegetables, and fruits as part of AFH meals,” the researchers said.

Ashima Kant, of the department of family, nutrition and exercise sciences at Queens College in New York City, led a team that evaluated data from 8,314 people 20 years old or older who responded to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys between 2005 and 2010. Participants had filled out a questionnaire about how frequently they ate in restaurants (the away from home meals) and fast food outlets.

The investigators looked at indicators of metabolic health such as BMI, serum cholesterol (HDL, LDL, and total), and triglycerides. They also reviewed indicators of exposure through diet to certain vitamins such as A, D, E, C, B-6, B-12, and folate.

Grab N’ Go
The scientists found that American adults ate an average of four AFH meals and two fast food meals per week. More than half of adults said they ate three or more AFH meals and more than 35 percent reported they ate two or more fast food meals per week.

The mean BMI of those who ate out more often was higher. Those who did so frequently also had lower serum levels of total, LDL, and HDL cholesterol. People who ate more fast food also had lower levels of HDL cholesterol. Serum levels of vitamins except, vitamin C, and lycopene were also lower in this group.

Those who do eat out, particularly women and those over 50, should order healthier foods like vegetables, fruits, and whole grains from the menu, the authors said in their report.

The new report comes on the heels of a study done by researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health that found menu items introduced by popular fast food chains such as Wendy’s in 2013 had 12 percent fewer calories than those introduced in 2012.

The current report is published in the International Journal of Obesity.