MONDAY, Nov. 14, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Children who eat more of their meals outside the home are more vulnerable to high blood pressure, poor cholesterol scores and other risk factors for cardiovascular disease, new research finds.
"If this is not addressed, it will pervade into adult life," said Karen Olson, a nurse and co-author of the study presented Monday at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2005 in Dallas.
Dr. Lawrence Appel, professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, added, "This confirms, once again, that when we eat out, we lose control over nutrients."
But eating out may only be half the picture, Appel said. "When you eat out, you do worse, but the home environment is not ideal either," he said. A combination of poor eating habits -- inside and outside the home -- dramatically increases the prospect of big health problems later in life, he said.
Both adult and childhood obesity have become major public health problems in the United States and, increasingly, in other developed countries.
"It is not news that obesity and related disorders are a major health concern for the U.S.," said Olson, who is executive director of the Cardiovascular Research and Education Foundation in Wausau, Wisc. "If it hasn't already, many experts believe that it will soon surpass tobacco as the number-one cause of preventable death in this country."
And children's bodies are mirroring increases in adult body weights, Olson added.
This study, part of the Wausau SCHOOL Project, is a community-based effort to address the cardiovascular health of students in the Wausau school district in north-central Wisconsin.
In all, 621 randomly selected second-, fifth-, eighth- and 11th-grade students provided complete data, including height and weight, diet and exercise surveys, and fasting lab work. The bulk of the students were in fifth and eighth grade, with an average age of 13.
Students were divided into two groups: Those who ate out four or more times a week, and those who ate out less than four times each week.
Twenty percent of the students said they ate out four or more times weekly, not including lunches in school cafeterias. By 11th grade, 37 percent ate more frequently outside the home, probably indicating the availability of independent modes of transportation, Olson said.
The dining-out crowd had higher blood pressure, lower insulin sensitivity, lower HDL -- or "good" -- cholesterol levels, and smaller LDL -- "bad" -- cholesterol particle size, which is associated with atherosclerosis. Their diet had higher levels of starch, sugar, sodium, fat and cholesterol.
Eating out more often also correlated with less physical activity and more soda consumption -- almost twice as much, the study found.
The children who ate out more frequently were not significantly more overweight than those who ate at home more often, but this might simply mean there wasn't enough follow-up time to see the effect, the researchers said. In fact, a study that appeared in The Lancet earlier this year showed that fast-food consumption was strongly associated with weight gain.
If anything, the Wisconsin data may well be an underestimation of poor food habits, because it did not include take-out meals or frozen pizzas and other prepared meals, Olson said.
"It's a dangerous combination of eating out and associated poor dietary choices coupled with sedentary activities," Olson said. "There's a concern for the early development of metabolic syndrome and the long-term problems of diabetes and cardiovascular disease."
The American Heart Association has launched a healthier kids campaign.