THURSDAY, Nov. 29 (HealthDay News) -- You'd like a salad? Want
some fries with that?
A new study shows that providing more menu options on a
fast-food menu doesn't mean the average diner chows down fewer
Researchers found that although there has been a 53 percent
increase in the total number of menu offerings over the last 14
years, the average calorie content of foods sold by eight of the
major U.S. fast-food chains has not changed much.
Part of the problem is that some of the highest-calorie foods
are masquerading as healthy, said Katherine Bauer, lead author of
the study and an assistant professor in the department of public
health at Temple University, in Philadelphia. "Entree salads, which
are increasing in number, can be bad, too. With fried chicken on
top and regular dressing, they can have more calories than a
The study, published in the November issue of the
American Journal of Preventive Medicine, analyzed menu
offerings and their nutritional value from McDonald's, Burger King,
Wendy's, Taco Bell, KFC, Arby's, Jack in the Box and Dairy
A nutrition expert who was not involved with the study agreed
with the study findings.
"Fast food may be offering more so-called 'healthy' alternatives but not necessarily fewer calories," said Lona Sandon, an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.
In the last two years studied -- 2009 and 2010 -- the average
lunch or dinner entree had 453 calories, while the average side
dish had 263 calories.
While the researchers didn't see a significant change in the
median calorie content of entrees and drinks, they found a small
increase in the calories found in condiments and desserts.
According to the study authors, fast food accounts for about 15
percent of Americans' calorie intake, up from about 4 percent in
the late 1970s. They said that a recent survey found that 28
percent of adults had fast food two or more times a week, and 40
percent of high school students consume fast food on any given
"It's not like one fast-food meal is going to be a problem," Bauer said. "But a good proportion of teenagers are eating fast food three to four times a week."
Rather than blaming Americans for a lack of willpower, Bauer
said that they're overexposed to places where most of the available
options are unhealthy, high-calorie foods. "We've created
environments where it's really impossible to succeed," she
Data for the study were taken from the University of Minnesota
Nutrition Coordinating Center Food and Nutrient Database, which
includes menu items available at 22 U.S. fast-food restaurant
The menus included all foods, drinks, desserts and condiments --
such as salad dressing, ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, jelly, salsa,
tartar sauce and croutons -- for lunch and dinner. Side dishes
included french fries, other fried foods, soups and chili, breads,
non-fried potatoes, and other foods such as nachos, baked beans and
Sandon said she thinks part of the problem is that people don't
understand calories or have a good idea of how many calories they
should be taking in every day. "People also tend to overestimate
how many calories they burn when they exercise," she added.
Why wouldn't the availability of more healthy food choices
create a decrease in the total calories consumed in fast-food
restaurants? Sandon said that while posting the calorie numbers are
helpful for people who are eager to manage their health and weight,
not everyone reacts that way. "Some people want the most calories
for their dollar," she said.
Sandon also thinks just the broader range of menu options may be
part of the problem. "When people have more choices they may order
more," she said.
One limitation of the study, Sandon noted, is that the
researchers only included data up to 2010. She said many of the
fast-food chains seem to have decreased calorie counts and expanded
healthy menu options only in the last two years.
Sandon suggested consumers try to eat home more often. And when
they find themselves at a fast-food restaurant, she recommended
that they order the smallest size available, even if it's from the
"And remember: Just because it's healthful and nutritious, it doesn't mean it doesn't have calories," Sandon said.
Learn more about healthy eating from the
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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