Although you can now find healthier choices on fast food menus like oatmeal, fruit smoothies, side salads and grilled chicken sandwiches, calorie counts have not declined. A new study led by researchers from Temple University's Department of Public Health and Center for Obesity Research and Education, found that the average calorie content of foods offered by eight of the major U.S. fast food chains changed very little between 1997 and 2010.
In the study, the researchers analyzed menu offerings and nutrient composition information from leading fast food restaurant chains in the U.S.. McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Taco Bell, KFC, Arby's, Jack in the Box and Dairy Queen were chosen.
One striking finding was a 53 percent increase in the total number of offerings -- 679 to 1036 items -- over 14 years across the restaurants. Specific fast-growing additions to the menus include the number of entree salads and sweetened teas.
There were not any large changes in the median calorie content of entrees and drinks. A gradual increase in calories was found in condiments and desserts. Meanwhile, a decrease in the median calories of side items was observed, which may be due to the addition of lower-calorie side salads and some restaurants limiting the portion sizes of side items like French fries.
In the last years examined, 2009 and 2010, lunch and dinner entrees had 453 calories on average per item while side items had 263 calories on average.
"You might order a lower-calorie entree, but then you get a drink, fries and a dessert," said the lead researcher. "Calories can add up very quickly. A salad can be low calorie, but not when it includes fried chicken and ranch dressing. Sweetened teas are just empty calories."
Studies have consistently found associations between fast food intake and excess weight and weight gain among adults.
In the near future, consumers will be able to see calories for all food items posted at restaurants and food vendors with more than 20 locations, as mandated by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.
"Without massive changes by the fast food industry in the caloric content of food, 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," the researcher said. "Over time, with increased exposure to calorie information on menus, people may start to understand how many calories they should consume each day."
SOURCE: American Journal of Preventive Medicine, November 2012
All research on this web site is the property of Leslie Beck Nutrition Consulting Inc. and is protected by copyright. Keep in mind that research on these matters continues daily and is subject to change. The information presented is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. It is intended to provide ongoing support of your healthy lifestyle practices.