Fast food calorie counts remain high

November 15, 2012

A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine shows that despite increased scrutiny and several legislative efforts, the calorie count of fast food menu items hasn’t changed very much in the last 10+ years.

The researchers analyzed menu offerings and nutrient composition information from leading fast food restaurant chains in the United States using archival versions of the University of Minnesota Nutrition Coordinating Center’s Food and Nutrient Database. McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, KFC, Arby’s, Jack in the Box, and Dairy Queen were chosen because they had been in the database since 1997, each has a defined set of offerings on the menu, and all standard menu items are included in the database.

The researchers did not find any large changes in the median calorie content of entrees and drinks. A gradual increase in calories was found in condiments and desserts. Meanwhile, a decrease in the median calories of side items was observed—from 264 to 219—which may be due to the addition of lower-calorie side salads and some restaurants limiting the portion sizes of side items like French fries. In 2009 and 2010, lunch and dinner entrees had 453 calories on average per item while side items had 263 calories on average.

The researchers found that there was a 53% increase in the total number of offerings—679 to 1036 items—over 14 years across the restaurants. Specific fast-growing additions to the menus include the number of entree salads, which increased from 11 to 51, and sweetened teas, which went from zero to 35.