Fast food chains still serve up large portion sizes to consumers, new research shows. According to a report published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease, there's little difference between portion sizes of fast foods in 1996 compared to those of 2013.
This suggests that while attention has been brought to bear on portion sizes and their possible connection to obesity and cardiovascular disease, American fast food patrons continue to pay for and receive large food portions.
Our country is deeply embroiled in epidemic obesity and associated cardiovascular diseases including diabetes and heart disease.
Americans consumers spend billions of dollars each year eating out at fast food restaurants, consuming foods which tend to be high in empty calories.
Thus it makes sense that we should learn more about how much impact fast food restaurants are contributing to American obesity.
Researchers at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts set out to do just that. Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University led a research team which looked at fast food data from 1996 to 2013 for the most frequently ordered fast food items at 3 highly successful national fast food chains which account for 34% of sales dollars of the top American fast food restaurants.
Hoping to find information about trends, Lichtenstein and her colleagues collected data on sodium, energy, saturated fat and trans fat from the most popular foods ordered from the 3 selected national fast food chains - all of which served up similar food items.
According to the report, the most popular fast foods ordered were the following:
- French fries (fried potatoes; small, medium, and large)
- cheeseburger (approximately 2 ounces and 4 ounces, uncooked beef weight)
- grilled chicken sandwich (1 available size)
- regular cola drink (small, medium, and large)
Using the WayBack Machine (a web resource tool which collects historical data on websites), Lichtenstein et al gathered information about energy (kcal/portion), sodium (mg/portion), saturated fat (g/portion), and trans fat (g/portion).
This data was helpful in aiding the researchers to obtain the answers they needed, and what they found says much about America's attitude about food and obesity.
Fast Food Restaurants Continue To Serve Up Large Meals
From 1996 to 2013, there wasn't much a difference in portion sizes offered by the 3 national food chains selected by Lichtenstein et al.
When the team looked at french fries, they noted that in 2013, represented 25% of the daily energy requirements of an adult (assuming the person would need 2000 kilocalories per day). This data held up across all 3 national fast food chains.
The researchers noted that while there seemed to be an increase in portion sizes during 2002, that trend appeared to ahve settled down.
Nonetheless, the fast food chains selected for the study continued to serve large portion sizes. This suggests to me that Americans enjoy eating large amounts of food, even when they don't need it.
According to the data Lichtenstein and her colleagues collected, a large size bundled meal of large cheeseburger, large French fries, and regular cola beverage made up 65% to 80% of a 2,000 calorie diet.
Unfortunately when people eat heavy meals, they're also eating a lot of saturated fat and salt.
They found that for meals served at all 3 fast food chains, the salt content of a 4-ounce cheeseburger approached or surpased half the 2,300-mg-per-day target and 75% of the 1,500-mg-per-day target.
It gets even worse for a large sized meal, the sodium content ranged from 63% to 91% of a 2,300-mg-per-day recommendation and 97% to 139% of a 1,500-mg-per-day recommendation.
By contrast, Dietary Guidelines for Americans people suggest the general population limit sodium intake to 2,300 mg per day and some subpopulations shouldn't consume more than 1,500 mg of sodium per day.
When they looked at saturated fat, they found that the saturated fat content of a large-sized meal in 2013 was 61% to 80% of the recommended 10% of energy upper limit (22 g/2,000 kcal), and 104% and 135% of the recommended 6% of energy upper limit (13 g/2,000 kcal).
The researchers noted that fast food chains are starting to steer away from trans fat.
According to Lichtenstein and her colleagues: "The trans fat content of the large bundled meal that includes a cheeseburger represents 50% to 75% of the current recommendation, although the trans fat content of cheeseburgers comes from that naturally present in ruminant fat."
They credit the decline in trans fat to a reduction in the use of partially hydrogenated fat which was brought about by public pressure and local mandates.
Similarly Labeled Fast Food Menus Don't Have The Same Amount Of Calories
They also noted that "an order of small French fries at Chain B provides 110 kcal and 320 mg sodium more than the same item at Chain A."
Essentially this amounts to "an extra 100 kcal per day without compensation translates to a 6 to 7 kg weight gain per year."
The authors believe that these differences between the energy, saturated fat and sodium content of menus that are similarly labeled by the 3 fast food chains may go completely unnoticed by consumers.
I think that people will choose healthier foods if they're given the right information.
Researchers from the New York City Department of Health and Human Hygiene in a random survey of patrons of several fast food restaurants in New York, found that people who read food menus tended to order fast foods with lower calories (read my article Fast Food Customers Really Do Pay Attention To Calorie Information, Research Study Finds).
Peer pressure may influence the foods we choose and how much of it we eat (read my article Are The People You Associate With Secretly Making You Fat?).
While some folks think that proliferation of fast food restaurants in our neighborhoods is contributing to the obesity epidemic (read my article Uh Oh! Eating Out Is Making The Whole World Fat), scientific research refutes this notion (read my article Can Living Near Fast Food Restaurants Cause You To Gain Weight?).
Lichtenstein et al believe that fast foods have a detrimental effect o our health citing evidence that "Consumption of foods and beverages from fast-food restaurants is positively associated with body fatness and coronary heart disease mortality."
I agree in as much as fast foods contain high amounts of salt, fat and calories. But personal choice is also something that we need to take into consideration. People can demand healthier foods.
After carefully analyzing the data, the researchers offered their suggestions for how Americans might make better food choices at fast food restaurants:"When developing strategies that help consumers better control their energy intakes and intakes of other nutrients, additional factors — such as total caloric intake, frequency of eating occasions, number of items eaten at any occasion, specific menu choices, and limiting energy-containing beverages — should be addressed. People should be encouraged to take advantage of the point-of-purchase menu labeling provided at fast-food establishments and should consult websites that contain nutrition information."
Since the fast food industry is all about profits, if people become better educated about the adverse effects that eating foods saturated with unhealthy fat and salt has on the human body, and those consumers tell the fast food industry that they are no longer willing to purchase such foods, the industry will have no choice but to change.
But until that day, it will continue to be business as usual for the fast food industry.
Life is hard, but please remember that your brothers and sisters in Christ are suffering the same hardships that you are suffering. But God will exalt us in His own good time. 1 Peter:9-10
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Urban LE, Roberts SB, Fierstein JL, Gary CE, & Lichtenstein AH (2014). Temporal Trends in Fast-Food Restaurant Energy, Sodium, Saturated Fat, and Trans Fat Content, United States, 1996-2013. Preventing chronic disease, 11 PMID: 25551184
Are The People You Associate With Secretly Making You Fat?
Uh Oh! Eating Out Is Making The Whole World Fat
Can Living Near Fast Food Restaurants Cause You Gain Weight?
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