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Fast foods not just bigger



a fast food burger and fries

People are eating far more fast food now than they did in 1978, when an estimated 4% of all calories consumed in the United States was fast food. Now that number is 11%, and 40% is the most recent estimate I've seen of the percentage of Americans over 20 who are obese.

Over ten years ago I reported on a study that surveyed portion sizes of foods across America, from sit-down restaurants to fast food joints to meals eaten at home. Yes, portion sizes were getting bigger - and they still are, at least at fast food restaurants.

Not only that, they're getting saltier.

Researchers compared the 2016 menus and nutrition information for 10 fast food restaurants - Arby's, Burger King, Carl's Jr., Dairy Queen, Hardee's, Jack in the Box, KFC, Long John Silver's, McDonald's, and Wendy's - with the same information published in 1991 and 1986 (J Acad Nutr Diet 2019;119(6):923-933).

Not only did they look at nutrition information, they also looked at the total number of items offered, excluding beverages such as sodas and condiments. Interestingly, the sheer number of entrees, sides, and desserts (with milkshakes being considered desserts), more than doubled between 1986 and 2016.

The average entree item increased in size by 13 grams per decade - a little over 1.3 ounces total. The average dessert item increased even more, growing 24 grams per decade (about 2.5 ounces total), while the average side stayed about the same.

As you might expect, calories increased as well, with desserts increasing by 62 calories per decade and entrees by 30 calories per decade.

But the worst news is that the foods contained more sodium, with the amount increasing by 4.6% of the Recommended Daily Value, or 92 milligrams, in entrees; 3.9% in sides, or 78 milligrams; and even increasing in desserts by 1.2%. Those percentage increases remained even when the authors calculated the amount of sodium per calorie in the foods: the increase was not comparable to the increase in portion size alone.

What this means for you

Not only is fast food bad for you, it's actually worse for you than it used to be. If you find yourself stuck eating at such places, visit their website first to find out which items have the fewest calories and the least amount of sodium. Or check out our recommendations at our Eating Healthy at Fast Food Restaurants guide.

First posted: May 29, 2019