Why You Still Shouldn't Visit Fast Food Joints

Savvy marketing may trick you into thinking they're healthier. But news flash! They're not.

November 21, 2012

The lettuce and tomato don't make it any healthier, we promise.

Here's some shocking news just in time for holiday travel season: Fast-food contains as many calories as ever, despite the increasing number of healthy items like oatmeal, salads, and other menu items with a healthy halo now appearing on menus.


"Clearly restaurants are adding some healthy items," says Katherine Bauer, assistant professor in Temple's Department of Public Health and at the Center for Obesity Research and Education. "These restaurants can market themselves as caring about health and obesity, but they're also adding really highly caloric things to the menu." Meanwhile, people see those healthier menu items and assume that the restaurant as a whole is cutting calories and fat grams across the board, she adds.

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Bauer just published a study in the November 2012 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine highlighting just how deceptive that marketing can be. She and her co-authors analyzed fast-food offerings from McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Taco Bell, KFC, Arby's, Jack in the Box and Dairy Queen, tracking calorie counts of their menu items from 1997 to 2010, to see if the fast-food industry is responding to the increasing number of menu-labeling laws that require calories to be listed on menu boards. Such laws already exist in New York City, Philadelphia and Seattle and will soon become federal law, once the menu-labeling provision in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 goes into effect.

Turns out, they don’t, really. Among her study's findings:

• The total number of offerings at all those restaurants increased 53 percent over the study time period. Even though some of this increase is due to healthier options, like side salads and oatmeal, Bauer's study cites research showing that a greater number of options generally leads to people consuming more food.

• Drink offerings increased 31 percent, largely because of all the new portion sizes now available.

• The number of calories in the average entrée and side dish has remained virtually unchanged since 1997.

• The number of salads increased from 11 to 51 over the study time period, which is a good thing. But their analysis of condiments, which includes salad dressings, showed that the calories in those increased 20 percent, from 84 calories in 1997 to 103 in 2010. That's not a good thing.

• In 1997, none of the restaurants offered sweet tea. In 2010, there were 35 different sizes and varieties of sweet tea on all the restaurants' menus. "Sweet teas are just like soda," says Bauer. "Perhaps the public perceives them differently, but the have the same amount of sugar and the same number of calories."

• The average dessert at fast food restaurants in 2010 was 502 calories, with some topping out at 719, compared to 334 calories in 1997. "Restaurants are adding more dessert options, and they seem to be making them with higher and higher calorie counts," Bauer says.

Her results don't give her much hope for change in the fast-food industry, Bauer says. "You would think that if the fast-food industry is changing its offerings for major markets, you'd see that across the board," she says. For instance, when New York City banned trans fats, fast-food restaurants replaced them with other oils at all their restaurants in the U.S., she says. But the fact that calorie counts haven't gone down and unhealthy menu items still plague fast-food menus means that the industry hasn't responded at all to the menu-labeling laws in major cities—and they probably won't when the laws become mandated by the federal government.

10-Plus Ways to Avoid Calorie-Overloaded Fast-Food Meals

That means you have to be a savvy consumer, she says. Consult nutritional information whenever you can, because you can't assume that healthier options are always healthy. "You'd think a salad has a certain healthy perception, but some have just as high calorie counts as the fancy hamburgers," she says.

Here are a few ways to avoid calorie-overloaded fast food meals:

Select the smallest portions available when it's time to choose size.

Choose water, low-fat milk, or 100 percent fruit juice, and avoid sodas, shakes, sweetened teas, smoothies and sugary coffee drinks.

• Order the salad…but be careful with add-ons. "Crispy" chicken, croutons, and salad dressings are all salad-destroyers in disguise.

• Avoid deep-fried, "crispy," or breaded items, even if they're not on your salad!

• Skip the extras, like cheeses, meats, bacon, butter, sauces, and toppings. If you do use sauce, dip into it rather than dumping it onto your food.

• Skip the "value" meal and build your own meal with smaller items and healthier sides.

• If you must, order one dessert and share it. Even if you go for a whopping 500-calorie dessert, split between two people, you're adding just 250 calories to your meal.