Every January, countless people make diet related New Year’s resolutions. Whether the plan is to eat more fruit and vegetable, cut out sugar or reduce caffeine consumption, those resolving to eat better should avoid burger chains, according to new research.
Many chains have expanded salad options, reduced fried options and made other improvements in diversifying their menus. But, the core of their menus has remained largely the same. For example, a new study into the content of popular items at three of the largest U.S. burger chains shows that the average calorie, salt and saturated fat contents of the items stayed pretty much the same over the past 17 years.
A Tufts University team of researchers looked at the nutrition of four popular menu items at the chains from 1996 through 2013: French fries, cheeseburgers, chicken sandwiches and regular colas. Overall, there were 27 items studied. Those included 2-ounce and 4-ounce cheeseburgers, three sizes of both colas and fries and a grilled chicken sandwich at each restaurant chain.
The restaurants were not identified. They were described as “the top restaurant on the basis of sales” as well as two national chains with “similar menu items” and “in the top 10 for total sales revenue.” Based on those descriptions, they appear to be McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s.
The research team found that the calorie content of similar items varied between the restaurants. A small order of fries at one of chain had 110 more calories than a small fries at another chain. Not surprisingly, they also found the calorie content of items at the same chain varied over time. A small fry order at the top chain had 20 more calories in 2013 than in 1996. At the competitors, the calorie count for small fries rose by 50 and 90 calories in the same time frame.
One positive finding was the reduction in trans fats in the chains’ French fries. They plummeted to “undetectable levels” because of the public health campaign against partially hydrogenated oils, which raise levels of LDL cholesterol.
Another positive finding was that the items reviewed had not gotten larger over time. The perception that the fast food chains increased their portion sizes over time did not play out in the items reviewed, according to Alice Lichtenstein, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory, who is also a professor at the Tufts’ Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. However, they looked at the same items over the period. The “Super Size” image that portions have increased involved adding Extra Large sizes, not changes in the Small sizes.
According to Lichtenstein, the real health and obesity danger is not individual fast food items, but ordering several together. She pointed out that the calorie, salt and saturated fat content for the items purchased as a meal pushes “the limits of what we should be eating to maintain a healthy weight and sodium intake.”
Most nutritionists recommend approximately 2,000 calories a day. However, the large cheeseburger meal, with fries and a cola ranges is 50 to 85 percent of a person’s recommended calories. The salt content was about 91 percent of the recommended daily intake, the researchers found. The research shows that those resolving to eat better this year might want to avoid the major burger chains, or at limit how often one eats a fast food meal.
By Dyanne Weiss