A study into the nutrition offered in meals from three major fast food chains finds there's been little change in food portion sizes from 1996 to 2013. The calorie, sodium, saturated fat content of popular menu items has mostly stayed constant.
A team led by Alice H. Lichtenstein, D.Sc, director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at the USDA HNRCA, analyzed the nutrition of three popular fast food menu items. On the whole, the researchers focused on 27 items, including small, medium and large fries, 2-ounce and 4-ounce cheeseburgers, grilled chicken sandwiches and cola beverages.
The average calorie content, salt content and saturated fat content of these items remained more or less the same since 1996 to 2013, according to the researchers. The only positive trend was a consistent decline in the trans fat of fries. That was probably due to changes in frying fat, Lichtenstein said.
According to Lichtenstein, the risk in terms of obesity and other health issues comes when fast food items are ordered together. The calorie levels, salt and saturated fat are equally high in most of the individual menu items assessed, mainly for items sold together as a meal.
Generally nutritionists suggest that most people eat around 2,000 calories a day. Among the three fast food chains, calories in a large cheeseburger meal including fries and a regular cola beverage, ranged from 1,144 to 1,757 over the years. This means a single meal could add up to a person's 88 percent of daily caloric requirements for a whole day. Besides that, the salt content in the cheeseburger meal averaged 91 percent of a person's daily recommended intake, the researchers found.
However, Lichtenstein's team found huge variations among chains. Depending on where a person ate, small orders of fries could differ by 110 calories and by 320 milligrams of sodium. Those variations also matter because a 100-calorie difference a day could mean about a 10-pound weight change per year.
The fast food industry can do more to help boost Americans' health, Lichtenstein said. "Restaurants can help consumers by downsizing portion sizes and reformulating their food to contain less of these over consumed nutrients. This can be done, gradually, by cutting the amount of sodium, and using leaner cuts of meat and reduced-fat cheese."
"From what we hear, some fast food chains are heading in that direction and also introducing new healthier options," she added. "If taken advantage of, these changes should help consumers adhere to the current dietary recommendations."