Which has fewer calories – Chipotle, McDonald’s or Panera? Study suggests fast casual is worse than fast food

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WATCH: A new study suggests that fast casual meals have more calories than fast food – May 18, 2016

Do you think you’re making a better choice by opting for a Chipotle burrito over a Big Mac and fries from McDonald’s at lunchtime?

A new study suggests that meals from fast casual restaurants, such as Chipotle and Panera, are typically 200 calories higher than what’s served at fast food joints.

The University of South Carolina scientists behind the research go so far as to say that fast casual “may not be the best choice,” but critics say consumers shouldn’t look to calories as the bottom line, they need to consider the ingredients used and how they’re prepared.

The scientists combed through menus from 34 fast food and 28 fast casual restaurants for their study. Turns out, fast casual entrees typically average about 760 calories while fast food entrees clock in at about 561 calories.

Across the board, fast casual restaurants also had dishes that exceeded 640 calories and bigger portions. The results caught the researchers off guard.

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READ MORE: Fast food vs. restaurant fare – Which is worse for your waistline?

“We were surprised that there were higher calories at fast casual restaurants, but one of the main takeaways from the paper is that there are a lot of high-calorie options at both kinds of restaurants,” lead researcher, Dr. Danielle Schoffman, said in a statement.

(Graphic by Jesse Skelton/Global News)

Schoffman’s previous research encouraged families to cut back on fast food, but they kept asking her if fast casual joints counted, too. That’s what inspired her latest research.

The team admits that they didn’t look at the nutritional value for the dishes, ingredients involved and preparation – only calorie counts.

With that in mind, they’re hoping consumers look at the big picture.

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“A burger on a white bun may have fewer calories, but when you’re talking about cancer prevention or other chronic diseases, you have to look beyond calories. We don’t want the message to be, ‘Go eat hamburgers and don’t eat guacamole and beans and brown rice,’” they concluded.

Chris Arnold, a spokesman for Chipotle, agreed.

READ MORE: Packaged foods with the highest and lowest sodium levels

“First, calories are not created equally. You can get calories from the kind of heavily processed food that is served in most traditional fast food restaurants (food that has little by way of the nutrients that are part of a healthy diet) or you can get calories from real whole, unprocessed foods (lean meats, vegetables, legumes, rice) that are also rich in nutrients that you need as part of a healthy diet,” he said in an email to Global News.

Global picked out three classic dishes from McDonald’s, Panera, and Chipotle, and had Jessica Begg, a Calgary-based registered dietitian weigh in.

Here’s what we compared:

McDonald’s: Big Mac with cheese and medium French fries
Chipotle: Carnitas tortilla with brown rice, black beans, a flour tortilla, cheese, sour cream, salsa and vegetables
Panera: A half Bacon Turkey Bravo sandwich with a half strawberry poppyseed salad and a side of baguette

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Begg notes that the Chipotle tortilla has more than half of the total calories an average person should eat in one day, the entire amount of saturated fat a person should have in a day, and nearly double the daily intake of sodium.

But it’s packed with vitamins A and C and 20 grams of fibre while the Big Mac only has three grams.

“The Big Mac and fries has the least amount of calories and sodium but has very little of any other nutritional value,” Begg noted.

READ MORE: Your restaurant meal is just as bad for you as fast food, study warns

Schoffman’s full findings were published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

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