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May 22, 2013

Fast Food: Is It Any Healthier?

fast foodsIs Fast Food Healthier?

Nearly every fast food chain has ads and commercials touting a healthier menu, but are these new and improved menus living up to the hype? Is fast food healthier?  The answer may surprise you.

According to a 14 year study published in the Journal of Preventive Medicine the nutritional quality of fast food has not improved significantly – some – but not worth bragging about. These findings are important when you consider that Americans now consume one-third of their calories outside the home.

The study was carried out from 1997 through 2010 and the menus of the following eight fast food chains were analyzed:

  • Arby’s
  • Burger King
  • Dairy Queen
  • Jack in the Box
  • KFC
  • McDonald’s
  • Taco Bell
  • Wendy’s

The US Department’s of Agriculture’s Healthy Eating Index was used to determine the nutritional quality of these fast food chains. The Healthy Eating Index is a 100 point scale where 100 represents the highest quality diet/meal (based on conformance to federal dietary guidelines).

The Healthy Eating Index

The Healthy Eating Index contains 12 components:

  • Total fruit
  • Whole fruit (other than juices)
  • Total vegetables
  • Greens and beans
  • Whole grains
  • Dairy
  • Total protein foods
  • Seafood and plant proteins
  • Refined grains
  • Fatty acids (ratio of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats to saturated fats
  • Sodium
  • Empty calories

The score of the average American diet is 55 – obviously not great (and we wonder why many American are so unhealthy).  The overall score for the fast food chains was 48 in 2010 representing a three-point improvement from 45 in 1997. The bright spot was the scores improved for the calories coming from solid fats, added sugars, meat, and saturated fats. But, quality scores declined for sodium and dairy. Quality scores stayed the same for fruit, vegetables, grains, and oils.

The Eating Index score improved at five of the fast food chains studied and declined at one – Burger King. An interesting finding is that many portion sizes offered at fast food chains are 2 to 3 times larger than what the food label calls a single serving.

Fats and Fast Foods

Fast foods are typically high in added sugars disguised by any number of names. Sugar will make you fatter faster than fats will. Fast foods are also high in saturated and trans fats which are considered to be unhealthy. But, saturated fats get a bit of a bad rap. Though they can raise LDL or bad cholesterol this rise is in large buoyant LDL particles which are not felt to contribute to hardening of the arteries.

Trans fats are a real problem contributing to cardiovascular disease and affecting the function of all cell membranes. A food’s trans fat content must now be listed on the label. Be careful reading the labels, though. If a product contains less than 0.5 gm of trans fats per serving it is considered to have “zero trans fats”.

Word of advice: if you see the words “partially hydrogenated” on the label the food contains trans fats and should be avoided.

Fast food is certainly convenient in our fast-paced world – it’s just not very healthy. Eating well is an art and takes practice and discipline.

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Dr. Joe Jacko


Dr. Joe is board certified in internal medicine and sports medicine with additional training in hormone replacement therapy and regenerative medicine. He has trained or practiced at leading institutions including the Hughston Clinic, Cooper Clinic, Steadman-Hawkins Clinic of the Carolinas, and Cenegenics. He currently practices in Columbus, Ohio. Read more about Dr. Joe Jacko

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