A trip to your local drive-through may present you with more options than you would have had a decade ago. Salads, oatmeal, fruit smoothies – at a glance it’s easy to think that fast food restaurants have upgraded their typical fries and burger fare. However, a closer examination reveals that despite the explosion of ‘healthy’ options, fast food still will not do your waistline any favors.
Katherine W. Bauer of the Temple University Department of Public Health and Center for Obesity Research and Education led a study examining the calorie counts of offerings at eight popular fast food chains. The menu selections and average calorie counts of the last 14 years were tabulated and compared.
This study confirmed the ballooning of fast food menu choices. In 1997, the eight restaurants studied had a combined total of 679 menu items. By 2010 that number had leaped to 1036 items. Much of this increase is accounted for by ‘healthy’ options that include entree salads and sweetened teas.
With the number of healthy options increasing, one would expect that the average calorie count would decrease. However, this is not the case. Bauer’s study found that there was very little noticeable change in the median number of calories in entrees and drinks. The average calorie count in side dishes did decrease from 264 to 219, likely because of limits on size and the addition of more side salads.
Why No Change?
Although an increase in the number of salads and smoothies sounds like an improvement, choosing a salad over a Big Mac will not necessarily reduce your calorie count. The study cites two reasons for this. First, many fast food salads include rich dressings and calorie-dense toppings like cheese and bacon bits. Second, people may not stop at a salad. "You might order a lower-calorie entree, but then you get a drink, fries and a dessert," said Bauer. "Calories can add up very quickly."
Another issue with fast food calorie counts lies not in the menu offerings but in the consumer’s desire to eat. A calorie-dense fast food meal may not be a problem every once in a while, but as a regular part of a person’s diet they can quickly lead to unwanted pounds. A recent study showed that 80% of adults had purchased fast food in the past month and 28% had reported fast food consumption in the past week.
Bauer explains that her study is not meant to discourage people from ever eating fast food. However, diners should take preparation method, portion size and condiments into consideration when making food choices.
Access to Information
Recent changes in US law will require all restaurants with more than 20 locations to display calorie counts on their menus. This leads to an interesting question: will greater access to nutritional information change consumer’s dining habits?
Bauer speculates that being forced to display caloric information may prompt restaurants to change their offerings even more. "Fast food restaurants may modify the calorie content of the foods they sell so consumers can see a smaller number on the menu board," she explains. "The key is for consumers to try to educate themselves about calories and be aware that just because a restaurant promotes healthful options, does not mean that overall the foods sold are lower calorie."
Steps to Take Now
Just because fast food menus are not getting much healthier yet does not mean you have to avoid the drive through completely. Instead, go in with as much knowledge as possible. If calorie counts are not plainly available on the menu board, ask for copies of the restaurant’s nutritional information. You can also find this information online.
Another common trap to avoid when eating fast food is consuming unnecessary calories. The average 20 ounce soda can have over 200 calories – calories that could be eliminated by switching to water. A slice of cheese can add 50 calories to a burger. A packet of salad dressing can have as many calories as the soda you just said no to, as well as a large portion of your daily fat allowance.
While fast food restaurants may not be reducing their calorie counts, being an educated consumer will allow you to make choices that will improve your health.