Is fast food healthier than it was 20 years ago? It hasn’t changed much: studies

The researchers are urging fast food restaurants to cut down on portion sizes and reformulate recipes so that they contain less fat, salt and calories. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

TORONTO – Fast food giants might have thrown salads onto their menus and marketed fresh, healthier fare in the past few years, but two new studies that tracked the nutrition in drive-thru dining suggest that our greasy, deep-fried vices haven’t improved at all.

After zeroing in on the calories, sodium and fat in four classic fast food items – cheeseburgers, fries, chicken sandwiches and pop – U.S. researchers out of Tufts University say that nothing’s changed in the past 18 years.

The only menu item that’s improved is French fries – that came from a “consistent” decline in the use of trans fat. Otherwise, calories, sodium and saturated fat remained at “high” levels.

READ MORE: How fast food tried to get svelte in 2014

“There is a perception that restaurants have significantly expanded their portion sizes over the years, but the fast food we assessed does not appear to be part of that trend,” according to Dr. Alice Lichtenstein, lead researcher and professor at Tufts’ School of Nutrition Science and Policy.

Story continues below advertisement

“Our analysis indicates relative consistentcy in the quantities of calories, saturated fat, and sodium. However, the variability among chains is considerable…particularly items frequently sold together as a meal, pushing the limits of what we should be eating to maintain a healthy weight and sodium intake,” she warned.

In a pair of studies published in the CDC’s Preventing Chronic Disease, Lichtenstein and her team looked at 27 menu items out of three fast food chains between 1996 and 2013.

READ MORE: 7 health and nutrition stories of 2014

They found that regardless of the decade, fast food made for a heavy, calorie-laden dinner. A cheeseburger meal, for example, clocks in at 1,144 to 1,757 calories. That’s roughly 58 to 88 per cent of the daily 2,000 calorie limit consumers should be aiming for. The researchers say that eating a cheeseburger combo leaves diners with little “wiggle room” for the rest of the day.

When it comes to sodium, a cheeseburger meal took up 91 per cent of a 2,300 milligram daily allowance. Depending on the chain and the time frame between 1996 and 2013, a single four ounce cheeseburger accounted for 1,100 to 1,450 milligrams of sodium – up to 63 per cent of the daily limit.

READ MORE: Why your fast food-friendly neighbourhood is making you gain weight

Across the board, only “small fluctuations” in calories, saturated fat and sodium were recorded over the near two decades. The only exception was fries – they decreased in saturated fat in 2001 and in trans fat by 2005, mirroring legislative efforts to crack down on the unhealthy fats.

Story continues below advertisement

There were notable disparities between the chains, too: an order of small fries, for example, could differ by 110 calories and 320 milligrams of sodium from chain to chain. A 100-calorie difference amounts to 10 pounds over the course of a year, Lichtenstein says.

The researchers are urging fast food restaurants to cut down on portion sizes and reformulate recipes so that they contain less fat, salt and calories. Do it gradually, hold back on the salt, and use leaner cuts of meat, they suggest.

READ MORE: This anti-obesity ad may scare parents into stashing the junk food away

“From what we hear some fast food chains are heading in that direction and also introducing healthier options. If taken advantage of, these changes should help consumers adhere to the current dietary recommendations,” the researchers say.

It’s a slippery slope for fast food giants trying to appeal to the health conscious consumer.

McDonald’s, for example, is grasping at its orange-coloured straws to transform its image from unhealthy fast food to “good food served fast.”

READ MORE: Hold the fries! McDonald’s sees North American sales slip further

It’s ushered in salads, but they only make up about two per cent of sales. Its fruit and walnut salad was discontinued altogether.

Story continues below advertisement

Burger King ushered in Satisfries, a low-calorie, low-fat counterpart to its original French fries. The item was pulled from the menu within a year.

Read the two studies here and here.

Sponsored content