New Research Shows Frequent Takeout Could Be Shortening Your Lifespan

A young white man taking take out food containers out of a brown paper bag in the kitchen.


Key Takeaways

  • Data from recent research links eating meals prepared outside of the home (two or more a day) with an increased risk of early death.
  • Americans eat many meals outside of their homes, such as restaurant meals or takeout.
  • While dining out is common, meals prepared at home are typically more nutritious than those prepared outside the home. Still, there are ways to make food prepared away from home more nutritious.

Many people enjoying eating food that was prepared outside of their home, and ordering in has become even more common during the pandemic. However, according to a new study, frequently ordering takeout or dining out at a restaurant increases your risk of dying from any cause by nearly 50%.

The study was published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in March 2021. 

“We’ve known the health impacts that higher saturated fat and high sodium meals can have over time, so this data is highlighting the fact that a good portion of meals out have a significantly higher amount of these items when compared to meals prepared at home,” Bridget Wood, RD, LD, a registered dietitian nutritionist located in Reno, Nevada, and virtual dietitian for YourDiabetesInsider, tells Verywell. Wood was not involved with the recent study. “When people go out to eat, the meals don’t always have a plethora of fruits and veggies to choose from—or they’re an additional charge which can deter a lot of people.”

The Research

For the study, the researchers evaluated over 35,000 adults using data from the National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey (NHANES) 1999-2014. Each person's dietary habits, including how often they ate meals that were prepared outside of their homes, were recorded and analyzed.

The results indicated that eating at least two meals prepared outside of the home per day—whether at a restaurant or at home via takeout—was associated with a 49% increased risk of death caused by any health cause.

Eating meals prepared outside of the home was also associated with more deaths caused by cancer or a cardiovascular event. 

The Study's Limitations

“Although this study was based on a large population of a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults, there were some limitations,” Vandana Sheth, RDN, CDCES, FAND, a Los Angeles-based registered dietitian nutritionist specializing in plant-based nutrition, intuitive eating, and diabetes, tells Verywell.

Sheth highlights several limitations to the study:

  • The frequency of eating meals prepared away from home was based on self-reports
  • There were small changes in the wording of the surveys, and information on dining out was not collected at follow-ups (this information was only collected at baseline)
  • There was no information about which meal was eaten away from home 

"Future studies can help provide more information about specific meals or foods eaten away from home which could potentially help us better understand the potential associations with negative health outcomes,” Sheth says.

Is Eating Food You Didn't Cook at Home Less Healthy? 

Research has shown that cooking dinner at home is associated with eating a healthier diet. However, according to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition in 2020, the typical American adult gets one of every five calories that they consume from a restaurant.

The same study also noted that 70% of the meals that Americans consume at fast-food restaurants were of poor dietary quality. At full-service restaurants, about 50% were of poor nutritional quality. The remainder of the meals were of intermediate nutritional quality.

The researchers also found that almost none of the restaurant meals eaten during the study period were of ideal quality or aligned with the American Heart Association’s guidelines. Ideally, the meals would be lower in sodium, sugar, processed meats, and saturated fat, while also containing produce, fish, shellfish, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and/or legumes.

Bridget Wood, RD, LD

This study isn’t telling us that people aren’t able to eat out entirely, but that if people reduce the frequency of eating out, they can still enjoy takeout meals with significantly reduced mortality risk.

— Bridget Wood, RD, LD

The researchers of the 2020 study concluded that the current restaurant business model in the U.S. provides energy-dense and nutrient-poor options that do not support diet quality and good health.

Should You Avoid Takeout or Restaurant Meals?

Eating meals prepared outside of the home is a large part of many people’s life. The National Restaurant Association's (NRA) projected sales were $863 billion U.S. dollars in 2019, representing half (51%) of Americans’ out-of-home food dollar spending.

The NRA also reported that two-thirds of Americans prefer to eat restaurant foods that offer flavors they cannot replicate at home. Furthermore, 4 of 10 adults say that restaurants are “an essential part of their lifestyle.”

For many people, going from eating meals prepared outside of the home to cooking at home 100% of the time would be a huge lifestyle shift. Wood says that the results of the recent study do not suggest that people should never enjoy a meal that they did not cook at home themselves.

4 of 10 adults say that restaurants are “an essential part of their lifestyle.”

“It’s important to note that this study isn’t telling us that people aren’t able to eat out entirely," Wood says. "But that if people reduce the frequency of eating out, they can still enjoy takeout meals with significantly reduced mortality risk."

In other words, a once-in-a-while date night or pizza party should not completely derail your health goals.

"When dining out, you can be mindful and still be healthy," Sheth says. "Choosing more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can increase fiber and nutrient intake-even when it’s prepared at a restaurant." 

Tips to Make Takeout or Restaurant Meals Healthier

While it might be a goal for people to always prepare nutritious meals at home, many people have busy lives that make eating meals prepared outside of the home is a necessity.

If that sounds familiar to you, know that there are ways that you can make takeout or restaurant meals more nutritious, such as:

  • Requesting sauce or dressing on the side, as many can be loaded with sodium. You can also add a small amount to your dish or add your own low-sodium alternative.
  • Asking for extra vegetables with your entree
  • Swapping out fried side dishes with a side salad
  • Splitting larger portions in half and enjoy leftovers at another meal
  • Requesting a whole grain bun or bread instead of a white and refined option when ordering a sandwich
  • Skipping the “free” dessert or soft drink (both of which can be loaded with added sugar)
  • Adding extra fruit or vegetables to your dish
  • Opting for grilled or baked seafood instead of processed protein choices
  • Reviewing the nutritional content of dishes before you order them. Many chain restaurants and fast food establishments have nutritional information on their websites.

What This Means For You

Making an effort to make meals at home more often, rather than ordering takeout or going out to eat at a restaurant, may help you live longer. When eating meals prepared outside of your home, being mindful and making small swaps can make your meals healthier.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Liu J, Rehm CD, Micha R, Mozaffarian D. Quality of meals consumed by US adults at full-service and fast-food restaurants, 2003-2016: persistent low quality and widening disparities. J Nutr. 2020;150(4):873-883. doi:10.1093/jn/nxz299

  4. National Restaurant Association (NRA). National Restaurant Association forecasts restaurants will add 1.6 million new jobs by 2029.

  5. National Restaurant Association (NRA). National Restaurant Association releases 2021 State of the Restaurant Industry report.