Main courses served at fast-casual restaurants, such as Chipotle and Panera, tend to be higher-calorie than traditional fast-food entrees, despite public perception that the offerings at these outlets are healthier, researchers from the University of South Carolina in Columbia say.
Comparing more than 3,000 entrees, they found the average fast-casual meal had 200 more calories than the average fast food meal. Overall, more of the fast-casual dishes were at the high end of the calorie range as well.
The researchers examined the calorie counts of 3,193 entrees sold at restaurants representing 24 different fast food chains and 28 fast-casual chains.
They found the average fast-casual entree had about 760 calories compared to the typical fast food entree with about 560 calories.
More items over 640 calories on fast-casual menus than fast food menus
The study team was surprised by the overall results and by finding a greater proportion of fast-casual restaurant entrees exceeded the median of 640 calories.
In other words, if a customer walks into a fast causal restaurant, there are more entree choices that are above 640 calories than there would be at a fast food restaurant.
The researchers recommend that consumers make use of posted calorie information on menus and restaurant websites to make an informed meal selection.
The study looked only at calorie counts and didn’t compare nutritional value of the meals.
Some entrees that feature healthy ingredients, like brown rice and vegetables, are often also served in very large portions that would be more reasonable for most people to eat for two meals rather than one.
When it comes to nutrients, the researchers say your best option is to go with the fast-casual foods, but don't be fooled that they're necessarily better for you when it comes to calorie load.
Fast-casual menu items are more calorically dense because they are often larger in size than fast food portion sizes.
It’s healthier to choose veggie tacos loaded with beans and vegetables at a fast-casual place than it is to order a cheese burger at a fast food restaurant even if the taco had more calories.
Your best bet: consider sharing a fast-casual meal or take half of it home for lunch the next day.
Source: Journal of Nutrition and Dietetics, online May 11, 2016.
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