Wednesday, September 09, 2009
Image by Christian Cable.
In the past, I have written in support of calorie counts being posted on menus in fast-food restaurants. The merits of calories counts on menus can be debated (I personally feel the potential benefits far outweigh the potential costs), but a recent study makes one thing perfectly clear - meals eaten in fast food restaurants contain an absolutely unbelievable number of calories.
The new study, which is available ahead of print on the website of the journal Obesity, was performed by Tamara Dumanovsky and colleagues at the New York City Department of Hygiene and Mental Health. The authors canvassed 300 randomly selected fast food restaurants between noon and 2pm, and quantified caloric intake by collecting receipts (as well as a follow-up survey) from 7,318 customers. Calories were assigned to each meal based on the nutritional information posted on each restaurant's website, and when the calorie content of an item was unclear (for example, if the participant did not divulge the type of salad dressing that they used), it was assumed that the item was the lowest-calorie item in its category.
Not surprisingly, the majority of the meals in this study were consumed in burger joints (55%, vs 27% in sandwich chains and just 9% in chicken restaurants). Meal combos consisting of at least two food items and a beverage were the most popular purchase, accounting for 54% of sales across all restaurants, and for more than 70% of sales in burger chains. But here's the really interesting finding - the average meal purchased by customers in the present study contained 827 calories! Chicken chains had the highest average calorie content at 931 calories, followed by Taco-Bell at 900 calories (Yo quiero angioplasty!) and burger chains with 857 calories. The authors also provide the breakdowns for individual burger chains, with Burger King rising above the pack with an average calorie content of 926, followed by Wendy's at 858 and McDonald's at 829 (the commercial practically writes itself - "an independent study found that McDonald's customers purchase less calories per meal than customers at Burger King or Wendy's"). Sandwich chains had the lowest average calorie content, with the average meal at Subway containing "just" 749 calories.
I can't tell you how ridiculous these calorie counts are. To put these numbers in context, it is usually assumed that the average person requires about 2000 calories per day. Meanwhile, the authors report that over 1/3 of all meals purchased contained over 1000 calories, and that the average "combo" meal at burger chains contained a whopping 1,200 calories! I mean, we all know that a Whopper Combo is not the healthiest choice, but I find it absolutely shocking that the average meal purchased at Burger King contains more than 900 calories. Even Subway, which enjoys a much better reputation than burger and chicken chains, still averaged a very high number of calories in each meal. And this was only at lunch-time - what would the authors have found if they had looked at supper meals? Could the calorie counts possibly get any higher?
The question in my mind is, what can we possibly do about all this? If we purposely setup booths to over-feed people as efficiently as possible, they couldn't possible do any better than major fast-food chains. Calorie counts on menus can't hurt - they may help consumers choose lower-calorie options, or they may embarrass some chains into lowering the number of calories in their items, as I have blogged about previously. "Fat taxes" like the one proposed (and then abandoned) in New York might help too. But we need to do something, because these restaurants are incredibly good at getting people to purchase incredibly large amounts of food. And as much as I hate to say it as an exercise physiologist, very few people can exercise enough to compensate for a 900 calorie lunch on a regular basis. Somehow we need to convince people to either stop visiting these chains, or to consume less calories when they do, or both (none of which will please the food chains themselves). The authors of the new study present some ideas of their own (smaller portions, healthier options, etc), but I just don't see fast food chains making any of these changes unless they are forced to by the government or by consumer demand. I don't have the answer to this one, but I'd love to hear your thoughts.
How do you think we can reduce the average number of calories purchases in fast food restaurants?
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Dumanovsky, T., Nonas, C., Huang, C., Silver, L., & Bassett, M. (2009). What People Buy From Fast-food Restaurants: Caloric Content and Menu Item Selection, New York City 2007 Obesity DOI: 10.1038/oby.2009.90
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