To be honest, you likely already knew that your favorite fast food haunt wasn’t doing you any dietary favors. It’s no secret that we should all be limiting our frequency at these establishments if we want to keep our weight down and our bodies functioning properly.
But, after a wave of negative press during the late 1990s and early 2000s, many fast food chains seemingly made an effort to improve their image. During that time, a series of documentaries and investigative news features exposed the unsavory – and often unethical – nutritional practices of these establishments, leading to a huge dip in popularity.
The situation didn’t improve for them when governmental agencies began to move against the use of trans fats in fast foods. This particularly unhealthful form of fat was in just about every item on many restaurants menus and a highly publicized overhaul quickly began.
Then, of course, there was a barrage of criticism over the often ridiculous portion sizes offered – some would even say “encouraged” – by these chains. In response, McDonald’s even dropped their trademark Supersize option in 2004 – although, the chain claimed it was only done in an effort to simplify the menu.
So, with their newer, healthier images fast food chains are still a major part of the American diet. The question arises, then, are they actually any better for us after these changes?
The Startling Numbers
In two reports, researchers at Tufts University compared the portion sizes and nutritional make up of three large fast food chains between 1996 and 2013. Specifically, the team looked at the composition of fries, cheeseburgers, grilled chicken sandwiches and regular colas.
Despite all of their efforts to make it seem otherwise, the data is clear: Fast food chains have done little to improve their menus. The one notable exception was the sharp decline in the use of trans fats – but only in fries. For the most part, this was directly related to legislative action taken between 2005 and 2009. Trans fats are still alive and well in many other options, though, including burgers and milkshakes.
Even when trans fats did slowly make an exit, however, the food as a whole didn’t really improve all that much. The total calories and sodium content remained remarkably high. Depending on the restaurant, a single cheeseburger could supply you with as much as 63 percent of your recommended daily sodium intake. Add fries to that and you’re up to 91 percent of your allowed sodium for the day.
Of course, it’s not completely surprising that fast food is still unhealthy. What is off-putting, though, is how little things have changed and just how unhealthy these restaurants still are. In fact, some chains even feature menu items that cram about 1000 calories into one single sandwich. For the average person, that’s about half the daily allotment. In one sandwich. Drinks are still woefully large, too, and a single beverage intended for one person could contain as much as 800 calories. A complete fast food meal, then, with burger, fries and a drink could run as much as 1750 calories. That means that that one meal could account for about 88 percent of a 2000 calorie per day diet.
Again, this isn’t really news. But the point is that, despite their well-designed marketing campaigns that try to argue otherwise, fast food restaurants have not really changed their menus.