Fast food has become ubiquitous in the American diet, with over 25% of Americans eating fast food two or more times a week. So it’s especially concerning that a 14-year study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine shows menus haven’t made much improvement in their nutritional quality.
Investigators examined food trends and nutrition profiles of menus from the following eight popular fast food chains between the years 1997 and 2010:
• Burger King
• Taco Bell
• Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC)
• Jack in the Box
• Dairy Queen
Researchers evaluated the nutritional quality of the restaurants’ offerings using the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Healthy Eating Index 100-point scale. Disappointingly, the results showed the nutritional quality of fast food improved only by three points from 45 to 48 over the study period. Compared to prior years, scores remained unchanged for fruit, vegetables, grains and oils, but improved for calories from solid fats and added sugars as well as meat and saturated fat levels. Scores were worse for dairy and sodium.
An overall score of 48 is discouraging given that it’s lower than the average American’s diet score of 55, which the USDA says is far from ideal.
“The [three-point increase] is disappointing, and a bit surprising, given the many pronouncements by companies that they have added healthier menu options, switched to healthier cooking fats, are reducing sodium, and are touting other changes in company press releases and advertising,” said Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C. in an accompanying editorial.
A handful of the restaurants, including Kentucky Fried Chicken and Jack in the Box, did improve their individual scores by offering more proteins and grain options and lowering sugar and saturated fat levels. However, other restaurants like Burger King headed in the other direction by boosting sodium and saturated fats.
Some changes that could improve the nutritional rating for fast-food joints include lowering portion sizes and offering more fruit and vegetable options. Wootan notes in her editorial that current portion offerings are two to three times larger than food labels list as a single serving. When offered bigger portions, she observes, people tend to eat more.
Large restaurant chains have started displaying calories counts on their menu boards, and Wootan says smaller chains should follow suit. “The full impact of menu labeling will not be clear until menu labeling is implemented nationally and consumers become accustomed to seeing calorie counts on menus,” says Wootan in her commentary.
With Americans consuming about one-third of their calories outside the home, fast food is playing a greater role in how families feed themselves. But public health advocates remain hopeful that restaurants will start to take greater responsibility for offering healthier foods, since their current offerings may be contributing to health problems related to diet, like diabetes and obesity.