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Fast food lunches contain RIDICULOUS amounts of calories

Wednesday, September 09, 2009 Posted by Travis Saunders
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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9 Response to "Fast food lunches contain RIDICULOUS amounts of calories"

  1. Anonymous Said,

    Many fast food chains don't supply "small" sizes anymore, or have simply increased the sizes of all of their portions. In my relatively limited experience with fast food, when I order a "small fries" for example, the cashier often upgrades it to a medium (which looks suspiciously like a large used to a few years ago...)because that's what comes with the combo and he or she is "trying to save me money." The cashier often looks confused when I insist on the small size. Likewise, when I eat at the cafeteria where I work, I often ask for only 1/2 or 3/4 portions, much to the confusion of the staff there.

    It seems like there is some kind of weird emphasis on "value" instead of sensible portion sizes. I'd rather waste money than throw away food, or worse yet, eat food that I don't need to and make myself feel unwell.

    I think that publishing calorie counts on fast food menus is a great idea, because there is no visual context anymore whereby we can judge a normal portion size or even a normal PERSON size! Everything is just too large now, but numbers don't lie! If all restaurants had to do it, no one would be unfairly penalized...

    Posted on September 9, 2009 at 12:53 PM

  2. Iris Said,

    Oh, good grief. It's as though they are actually conspiring to kill their customers.

    We like Chipotle, but there is nothing there I can really order and eat by myself. The portions are so huge, on the rare occasions we go there, I always split a burrito with my husband, but even that is too high calorie to be reasonable.

    And when they do offer something 'healthier' the chains put no effort into making it palatable - witness the awful grilled chicken that some of them serve up.

    Posted on September 9, 2009 at 12:58 PM

  3. Jason Woertink Said,

    Do they take into account the food that was not finished? Assuming that people eat everything they ordered seems unlikely.

    Posted on September 9, 2009 at 1:26 PM

  4. Ken Leebow Said,

    Thanks for the information. Very interesting. I'm coming out with a new health and lifestyle book and have advised people to pass on the fast food. Of course, any and all restaurants are danger zones.

    Keep up the good work,

    Ken Leebow

    Posted on September 9, 2009 at 2:12 PM

  5. Anonymous Said,

    Jason made a very good point as this assumes that the person finished their entire meal, but the point was to see what food was made available to these consumers. Most studies have shown that the more food available to a person at any given time, the more they will consume.

    I normally agree that calories are important to have on menus, but if the average calories at Subway are over 700 I think I will need to change my position. All Subways I have been to have printed menus with the nutritional informaion as well as the listing of low calorie sandwiches right where you order your food. Obviously this information didn't help as the amount of calories is still exceptionally high.

    Until more nutritious and satisfying food is as inexpensive and as readily accessible as fast food, I don't see this trend slowing down.

    Posted on September 9, 2009 at 2:52 PM

  6. Travis Saunders, MSc Said,

    Great question Jason. They did not quantify the number of calories that people actually consumed, but I agree with the Anonymous poster who suggested that the more food that is provided, the more that people will eat.

    Posted on September 9, 2009 at 6:53 PM

  7. Chris Said,

    Yes. I agree. Good grief. I think this issue has been argued to death. Lunches at mid-priced chains contain RIDICULOUS amounts of calories (if you want to point fingers) and lunches at high-end restaurants are likely to have even more. Eating out can be bad for your diet. No question. And that is the truth just about wherever type of restaurant you go to (ever see the calories counts in some salads?). But YOU CAN make good choices wherever you go - if you so choose.

    I am glad that fast food restaurants post their calorie counts because at least there, it makes my job of deciding what to eat easier. To be honest, the calorie count of my typical meal at Taco Bell is 590. And I don't go there all that often so I don't think it's all that harmful to my diet. So it's all about choices. It's just that most of us don't care to make good choices.

    Posted on September 11, 2009 at 12:35 PM

  8. E. Foley | Geek's Dream Girl Said,

    One technique that works if you're stuck at a fast food restaurant for some reason is to order a kid's meal. The portions are much more reasonable (and sometimes, you get a toy!).

    Fast food places don't care if you order off the kid's menu for yourself.

    I had friends that would drag me to Cracker Barrel all the time. Cracker Barrel has "southern" food. Everything - even the vegetables!! - glistening with butter. The good thing is that they allow adults to order from the kid's menu, so I'd just get the kid's breakfast platter.

    Not the perfect solution, but it's fewer calories at least.

    Posted on September 11, 2009 at 1:41 PM

  9. Anonymous Said,

    "How do you think we can reduce the average number of calories purchases in fast food restaurants?"

    An official "Name & Shame" campaign, perhaps? If some official gov agency or so regularly publishes data on the top 15 Worst and top 15 Best lunch places health-wise (I imagine that after the initial assessment a specific restaurant/place would have to request an investigation for potential re-ranking, rather than the agency periodically checking all the places, to save taxpayer money or something) then that would probably put enough pressure on the companies, without banning anything or using too crude law/tax tools.

    Posted on March 20, 2010 at 1:02 AM


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We are PhD students in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Our research focuses on the relationships between obesity, physical activity, and health risk. This blog is our attempt to consider the many "cures" for obesity that we read about on a daily basis. Enjoy.


The opinions expressed here belong only to Peter and Travis and do not reflect the views of any organization. Any medical discussion on this page is intended to be of a general nature only. This page is not designed to give specific medical advice. If you have a medical problem you should consult your own physician for advice specific to your own situation.

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