Here's the good news: You have more choices than ever at the drive-thru.
Now for the bad news, which you had to know was coming: Even with an increase of so-called "healthy" choices, fast food is hardly healthier than they were more than a decade ago – despite some bad press and pressure from health advocates.
In a new study appearing in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers discovered that between 1997 and 2010, the number of fast-food menu items in the U.S. doubled, but average calorie counts remained largely the same. They looked at McDonald's, Burger King, Taco Bell, Wendy's, KFC, Arby's, Jack in the Box and Dairy Queen, and found that over 14 years, they moved from a collective 679 menu items to a whopping 1,036. (Salad and sweetened tea options, in particular, saw some major growth over the years.)
But median calorie counts, at least for entrees and drinks, remained pretty much the same. The average caloric content of condiments and desserts, on the other hand, did see a slight increase, while the average number of calories in side items went down, perhaps due to more salad options being added to the fray.
Study authors said lunch and dinner items had, on average, 453 calories per item, while side items had an average of about 263 calories each. But the benefits of low-calorie entries can quickly be cancelled out when, for example, your salad includes bits of fried chicken and is doused in ranch. And as lead study author Katherine Bauer said in a statement, "[sweetened] teas are just empty calories."
While folks only have something to gain from cutting fast food out of their diet, total abstinence isn't necessarily the answer. Eating too much of the processed food, of course, can lead to obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and even depression – in fact, the stuff is part of the reason why those problems are so pronounced in South L.A., where the majority of eateries have drive-thrus. Researchers cited surveys that showed 80 percent of adults had gotten fast food in the previous month, and 28 percent ate it at least twice a week.
Every day, at least 40 percent of teens eat fast food.
Most fast-food joints will eventually have to post all of their calorie counts in order to remain in accordance with the Affordable Care Act, which establishes uniform nutrition labeling requirements for standard menu items. McDonald's started making the move back in September.
But for now, the study's authors say to keep in mind a fast-food restaurant's "healthy option" doesn't necessary mean it's low-fat or low-calorie. As Bauer says: "[You] need to think about portion size, preparation method, condiments and the total caloric content of your meal."
Photo by Stephen Zacharias via Flickr Creative Commons.