Fast-Food Menus Even More Unhealthy Now Than 30 Years Ago, Study Shows


New research shows that calorie counts have grown over the years, most likely because portion sizes have ballooned.


BOSTON — Despite strengthened laws and regulations across the country in recent decades to make restaurant offerings healthier, and despite the push by many chains to add healthier options for diners, a new study finds that fast-food menus in the U.S. are more unhealthy than they were 30 years ago.

Researchers at Boston University analyzed menu items at 10 of the most popular fast food restaurants in the United States in 1986, 1991, and 2016. They found that fast-food entrees, sides, and desserts have increased significantly in total calories, sodium over the study period. Portion size of fast-food entrees and desserts have also grown since the 1980s, and the variety of entree, side, and dessert options increased by 226 percent — or about 23 items per year.

“Our study offers some insights on how fast food may be helping to fuel the continuing problem of obesity and related chronic conditions in the United States. Despite the vast number of choices offered at fast-food restaurants, some of which are healthier than others, the calories, portion sizes, and sodium content overall have worsened (increased) over time and remain high,” says study lead investigator Dr. Megan A. McCrory, from the Department of Health Science at BU, in a media release.

Researchers say the greatest jump in calories were seen in desserts (about 62 kcals per decade) and entrees (30 kcals per decade) — a significant rise linked to greater portion sizes in both categories. One meal, consisting of an entree and a side provides an average of 767 kcals, which projects to 40% of a 2,000 calorie a day diet. Toss in a standard sugary beverage and a person is consuming between 45 and 50 percent of their recommended daily calorie intake.

The findings draw even more attention to the obesity epidemic plaguing the country. The study shows that nearly four in ten adults over 20 (37 percent) consume fast food on any given day. That number balloons to 45 percent when just looking at adults ages 20 to 39.

“Given the popularity of fast food, our study highlights one of the changes in our food environment that is likely part of the reason for the increase in obesity and related chronic conditions over the past several decades, which are now among the main causes of death in the US,” noted Dr. McCrory.

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In more positive news, researchers say that calcium in entrees and desserts was much higher than at the start of the study, while iron levels increased significantly in desserts.

McCrory hopes the study’s highlights will lead to more changes on fast-food menus, such as healthier portion sizes, considering how many Americans dine at these restaurants on a daily basis.

“We need to find better ways to help people consume fewer calories and sodium at fast-food restaurants,” she says. “The requirement that chain restaurants display calories on their menus is a start. We would like to see more changes, such as restaurants offering smaller portions at a proportional prices.”

Data was drawn from a study known as The Fast Food Guide, published in 1986 and 1991, and online sources in 2016.

The study was published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

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