Fast-food lunches rack up the calories


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Few people go to fast-food places for low-fat, healthful foods, so it’s no surprise that a new study finds that customers accumulate copious calories when they eat a fast-food lunch.

Researchers from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Bureau of Chronic Disease Prevention and Control, surveyed 7,750 customers at 167 fast-food restaurants in New York City (before fast-food calorie-labeling regulations began) to see on average how many calories they consumed at lunch. Results were broken down into several categories, including restaurants, foods and what meals consisted of.


Those who ate at fast-food chicken chains averaged the highest number of calories per meal -- 931. Customers of sandwich joints averaged the lowest calories, at 734. Overall, average lunchtime calories came in at 827, but when researchers excluded single-item purchases, that average rose to 961 calories.

Although lunch is only one meal, 34% of all people surveyed ordered meals that averaged 1,000 calories or more. For the three hamburger chains surveyed -- McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s -- more than 70% of all orders were combination meals or dollar meals. Those dollar or value meals averaged more than 800 calories at the three hamburger chains. Not surprisingly, the combination meals (usually consisting of a sandwich, side order and drink) averaged more than 1,100 calories at the hamburger chains.

The study, in the July issue of the journal Obesity, is timely for Californians, since a law went into effect last week requiring chain restaurants with 20 or more locations to give nutrition information (including calorie counts) via brochures, menu inserts or table tents. But next year, calorie information has to be on menus and indoor menu boards.

In the study, the authors wrote, ‘Posting calorie information on menus and menu boards, a requirement for New York City fast-food chains since April 2008, may help guide consumers to healthier choices and increase demand for lower calorie items. It may also encourage companies to reduce portion sizes and increase the availability of lower calorie options, especially in the popular combination meal and value categories.’

-- Jeannine Stein

Photo credit: Jeff Kauck / via Bloomberg News