December 31, 2014
3 min read

Fast-food menus still unhealthy

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Although fast-food restaurants have made an effort to make their meals healthier by decreasing their size, the meals remain high in calories, sodium and fat, according to two studies published in Preventing Chronic Disease.

Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, of the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, and colleagues conducted two studies examining temporal trends in fast-food restaurants from 1996 to 2013 and 2000 to 2013.

Alice H. Lichtenstein

Alice H. Lichtenstein

Shift in focus needed

From 1996 to 2013, fast-food restaurants have made an effort to emphasize portion sizes, but researchers are recommending that the restaurants focus on total calories, frequency of eating, number of items ordered, menu choices and energy-containing beverages.

The researchers evaluated three fast-food chain restaurants to collect data on energy, sodium, saturated fat and trans fat of four commonly ordered items, including French fries, cheeseburgers, grilled chicken sandwiches and regular cola.

All examined menu items, except French fries, at all three chains had varying energy content (P≤.04). Fifty-six percent of the items’ energy content decreased (beta range, -0.1 to -5.8 kcal) whereas 44% increased (beta range, 10.6-10.6 kcal).

Except for the 2-oz cheeseburger, all menu items differed for sodium content (P≤.01). Twenty-seven percent of 18 items’ sodium content decreased significantly (beta range, -4.1 to -24 mg; P≤.05) whereas 39% increased (beta range, 1.9-29.6 mg; P≤.04).

In 2013, the large-sized meal contained 61% to 80% of the recommended 10% of energy upper limit for saturated fat (22g/2,000 kcal) and 104% to 135% of the 6% upper limit (13 g/2,000 kcal).

When examining a large-sized meal containing a cheeseburger, French fries and regular cola in 2013, researchers discovered that it contained 65% to 80% of the 2,000-calorie per day diet; 63% to 91% of the 2,300-mg per day sodium content recommendation and 97% to 139% of the 1,500-mg per day recommendation.

“When developing strategies that help consumers better control their energy intakes and intakes of other nutrients, additional factors — such as caloric intake, frequency of eating occasions, number of items eaten at any occasion, specific menu choices and limiting energy-containing beverages — should be addressed,” the researchers wrote. “People should be encouraged to take advantage of the point-of-purchase menu labeling provided at fast-food establishments and should consult websites that contain nutrient information.”


Dietary guidance

From 2000 to 2013, researchers found little evidence that fast-food restaurants were reformulating their products to become more consistent with dietary guidance to reduce sodium and saturated fat intake.

As in the previous study, three fast-food chain restaurants (Chain A, Chain B and Chain C) were evaluated to determine the nutrition content of three commonly ordered items including French fries, cheeseburgers and grilled chicken sandwiches.

Among the three chains, sodium content per 1,000-kcal differed widely. French fries sodium content remained high for all three chains throughout the study period, however the range narrowed from 316 to 2,000-mg per 1,000-kcal in 2000 to 700 to 1,420-mg per 1,000-kcal in 2013.

The main contributors of saturated fat were cheeseburgers with little change in content per 1,000-kcal during the study period. However, large French fries trans and saturated fat content declined.

According to researchers one approach to making fast-food restaurants healthier is to add new items to the menu.

“These new items could give consumers a range of options, which could help them meet dietary recommendations if they consistently varied their choices among these options,” the researchers wrote. “Although consumers can lower their intake of overconsumed nutrients by varying the number and choice of items ordered, fast-food restaurants can help by modifying not only the portion size but also the formulation of popular menu items to reduce the supply of these nutrients. To date, reformulation of the items most frequently consumed has not occurred to an adequate extent.”

For more information:

Urban LE. Prev Chronic Dis. 2014;11(E228):1-5.

Urban LE. Prev Chronic Dis. 2014;11(E229):1-7.

Disclosure: Both studies were funded in part by the US Department of Agriculture.