Adding healthful items like salads and yogurt to the usual fries and burgers has meant more options for the time-pressed diners. However, a new study finds that nothing much has changed in the way fast food restaurants offer food. In fact, the meals have become worse for our health in the past three decades.
Ultra-processed and filled with empty calories, fast food may increase the risk of cancer. Since quick-lunch diners are on the rise around the world, the bigger, saltier, and heavier choices are raising concerns for the continuing problem of obesity and related chronic conditions.
Fast Food Menu Items At Their Worst Nutritional Value
For years, fast food restaurants have tried to appeal to health-conscious customers by mixing lighter fare like fresh vegetables with traditional menu items like fried chicken, shakes, and fries. But despite the increase in “healthy” choices over the past 30 years with “fresco” burritos (Taco Bell) and grilled chicken wraps (McDonald’s), most of the selections grew in sodium and calories as well.
An analysis of the offerings at 10 of the most popular fast food chains in the US in 1986, 1991, and 2016, shows that quick-lunch entrees, sides, and desserts increased significantly in portion size over time. The study was published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics on March 2019.
The researchers studied a total of 1,787 menu items from Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Long John Silver’s, KFC, Jack in the Box, Hardee’s, Dairy Queen, Carl’s Jr., Burger King, and Arby’s. In the span of three decades, the number of items in the entrée, sides, and dessert categories rose 226 percent. The study reveals that even with lighter items in the mix, fast food menus are worse for the consumers’ health than they were 30 years ago.
More People Continue To Bite Into The Fast Food Craze
According to the 2013 and 2016 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 36.6 percent of adults in the US ate fast food on any given day. Meanwhile, researchers from the University of Connecticut found in 2018 that about 74 percent of parents buy unhealthy food items in fast food restaurants for their children.
The investigators noted that despite the commitment of most fast food chains in improving their children’s menus and providing more wholesome choices, the overall status of their offerings have not become more healthful.
The 30-year study focused on nutrition, portion size, and variety of meals. The scientists explain their focus, noting that, “These restaurants were chosen because the nutritional information on the key nutritional variables of portion size, energy, and sodium was available for each of the 3 years being analyzed.”
The paper highlights the rising popularity of fast food and its effect in the food environment. It demonstrates the correlation of this factor to the increase of obesity cases and related chronic illnesses over the past several decades, which are now among the top causes of death in the US.
Bulging Proportions May Fuel Health Problems
The salt and fat content, as well as the sheer size of these convenient meals, have long been a public health concern. In the US, they are often regarded as the main culprit for pushing up the obesity rate among adults, which rose to 20 percent in 2016 from 13 percent in the early 1960s. The new study suggests the issue is not getting any better.
Not putting the blame on customers, local governments are making efforts to require fast food restaurants to properly label the items they sell. However, listing calorie counts and other similar measures have faced significant opposition, including from the Food and Drug Administration.
Head researcher Megan McCrory said, “The restaurants really haven’t done enough. The big picture is that there have been some positive changes, but they’re small, and overall, the changes have gotten worse.” Her team specifically paid attention to changes in caloric content, energy density, portion size, iron, sodium, and calcium contents of the 10 fast food chain’s menus.
The team accessed the relevant data through The Fast Food Guide, which was published in 1986 and 1991, and via resources available online for the year 2016. They’ve found out that as the variety of meals increased, so did the caloric content of the food items available, same with the portion size.
Across the 10 chains, the data shows that the average entrée 90 more calories and weighed 39 grams more in 2016 than in 1986. It also contained 41.6 percent of the recommended daily sodium allotment, up from 27.8 percent. The largest rise was in the dessert category, with an increase of 62 kilocalories every 10 years.
The Calories Add Up And It’s Easy To Lose Count
Darren Seifer, a food and beverage industry analyst at NPD, states that one possible reason the desserts have 186 more calories than their counterparts from three decades ago is that fast food chains are counting on bigger cookies and sundaes as a way of attracting more customers and making more sales. He explained that the majority of people going to these restaurants come during lunchtime, which isn’t a typical time to be getting dessert. But offering larger portion sizes meant more value for the customers.
The link between larger portion sizes and higher caloric content is clear. These increased by 24 and 13 grams per decade for desserts and entrees respectively. McCrory added, “Our study offers some insights on how fast food may be helping to fuel the continuing problem of obesity and related chronic conditions.” The sodium and calories have over time have remained high despite the vast number of selections offered at these restaurants. They may label their items as “healthy,” but the figures paint a different picture.
Chips, soups, French fries, and burgers, when consumed together in a single meal already takes up a significant percentage of a person’s 2000-calorie daily diet. The researchers have suggested strategies to help consumers cut back on their fast food intake, including a new scheme that would let them order smaller portions at lower prices. Whether the industry will allow such ideas is unknown.