That's the conclusion of a new study published in Obesity Research that says Americans in all age groups are snacking more and chowing down more at restaurants -- especially fast food restaurants.
"We're taking in so many calories on a passive level," says one of the study's authors, Samara Nielson, a doctoral candidate in nutrition at the University of North Carolina's School of Public Health.Nielson says many people don't really think about the calories they're consuming when they eat out.
"It's like the calories aren't there because you don't know what they are," she says.
However, those extra calories are catching up in a big way. Almost two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And it's not just adults. Thirteen percent of children between the ages of 6 and 11 are overweight, and 14 percent of teens are now considered overweight, according to the CDC.
And obesity contributes to numerous health problems, including heart disease and diabetes.
Nielson and her colleagues studied data from national food consumption surveys from 1977 through 1998, as well as surveys of 63,380 people over age 2. The participants were asked where they got their food (at home, vending machines, fast food restaurants, other types of restaurants, stores or schools) and what types of food they ate.
The participants were lumped into four different age groups -- 2 to 18, 19 to 39, 40 to 59 and over 60 years old.
The researchers discovered changes in eating habits in every age group.
They found that fast food consumption was up dramatically. In 1977, 9.6 percent of all meals were from fast food. By 1996, that number had soared to 23.5 percent.
Snacking was up more than 50 percent. In 1996, snacking represented 17.7 percent of the average American's daily calories, up from 11.3 percent in 1977.
Foods that increased the most in consumption were pizza, french fries, soda, salty snacks and candy. Surprisingly, consumption of high-fat beef, pork and medium-fat milk was down.
Nielson also notes that if people are snacking and eating at fast food restaurants, they're probably not eating fruits and vegetables, so they may not be getting all the nutrients they need. She's particularly concerned about kids replacing milk with soft drinks. Because they're not getting enough calcium, they may have health problems such as osteoporosis down the road.
Samantha Heller, a New York University Medical Center nutritionist, says she's not surprised by the study because the North Carolina researchers are "quantifying something we already know."
Heller adds the news may be even worse because the survey participants may have underreported what they're really eating.
Nielson suggests people try to eat at home more often and to make healthier choices, such as fruits and vegetables.
Heller says she doesn't think people will stop eating out as much because their lives are so busy. However, she adds, restaurants should try to offer healthier options and consumers need to learn how to eat better when they have fast food or dine in restaurants.