When it comes to finding ways to lose weight, there are lots of options. The obvious ones are to eat less and eat less fattening foods, but there is a relatively easy and often overlooked strategy: Eat out less often.

This is especially true for children and adolescents. So parents interested in improving their children's diet will want to take note of the findings and recommendations of a study published last week.

When both parents work and arrive home late, tired, and hungry, the urge to order in or eat out is great.

The number of meals adolescents eat away from home has increased dramatically. From 1999 to 2004, eating out three or more times per week in fast food restaurants increased from 19% to 27% for adolescent girls and 24 to 30% for adolescent males.

There are many reasons why fast food restaurants are attractive to teens and families. They have low prices and are located near schools and high-traffic neighborhoods. In addition, fast food is heavily marketed to children and teens in TV advertising. When both parents work and arrive home late, tired, and hungry, the urge to order in or eat out is great.

So what happens to the diets of children and adolescents when they eat at fast food or full service restaurants instead of at home? And what is their impact on kids' weight and general health? These are some of the questions raised the by the study, published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

The (Huge) Impact of Eating Out

Almost 10,000 children took part in the study, which asked 4717 children aged 2 to 11 years old and their parents, and 4699 adolescents, ages 12-19 years old, what they were eating and where they were eating it.

When children ate at fast food restaurants rather than home, they consumed 126.9 more calories. When they ate at a full service restaurant, the extra calorie count was 160.49.

Children and teens ate fast food and full service restaurant food routinely, and their intake of sugar, salt, calories was far higher when they ate out. When children ate at fast food restaurants rather than at home, they consumed 126.9 more calories. When they ate at a full service restaurant, the extra calorie count was 160.49. According to the study, these effects were even greater for lower-income children and adolescents."

For adolescents, fast food restaurants supplied 309 more calories than home, and full service restaurants 267. Given how much larger meals often are at full service restaurants, this 40-calorie difference between fast food establishments and full service restaurants, though small, suggests how intensely caloric fast food tends to be.

It's not just what you do eat when you eat out; it's what you don't eat as well. Eating in fast food and full service restaurants results in higher intakes of sugar sweetened beverages and a reduction in milk consumption for both children and adolescents. As Lisa Powell, a professor of health policy and administration in the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and lead author of the study, said in an interview, , when adolescents consume fast food in the restaurant, "the amount of additional soda that was consumed... was twice as high." At least when fast foods are eaten at home, children and adolescents drink less sugar-sweetened beverages.

Soda consumption has been linked with becoming overweight and obesity as well as an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Foods eaten in fast food and full service venues were associated with increases in sugar, sodium, total fat and saturated fat intakes, all of which are risk factors for overweight, hypertension, and dyslipidemia, components of the metabolic syndrome . The only positive finding was that for some kids, eating out raised their protein consumption.

What Families, and Public Policy, Can Do

Quite obviously, the researchers recommend that parents discourage eating in restaurants, both full service and fast food because of their impact on nutrition and weight. They also point out a number of public policies that could change the our growing reliance on eating out. These policies might include:

  • Increasing the costs of eating out relative to eating at home (though this is likely already a disincentive)
  • Reducing the presence of fast food outlets around schools through zoning regulations
  • Limiting portion sizes served in restaurants
  • Limiting marketing to children and teens, especially through TV
  • Improving the nutritional content of fast food and full service restaurant meals and providing healthy choice options on menus

Closer to Home: Family Strategies
Packing a school lunch rather than relying on the school cafeteria or, for many older children and adolescents, on fast food restaurants nearby, is one way to ensure that children and teens are getting food that has less salt, less fat, and less sugar.

A little advance planning on the weekend – shopping for the week and cooking some meals in advance, can help families avoid eating out so often. (You may want to read the ten tips for starting a nutritional makeover offered here. ) The cost savings for eating in can be considerable as well.

When you and your children do eat out, try to choose restaurants that provide nutritional information with menu choices. Substitute milk for juice and soda, limit portion size (bag some of your food before you even begin). If you select your meal carefully from the choices on the menu, you can make eating out a healthier experience and teach your children to pay attention to what they order as well.

The study is published in Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine .