(Gray News) – Although fast food chains offer more salads than they did 30 years ago, their menu items have gotten less healthy overall than they were back then, according to new research.
"Our study offers some insights on how fast food may be helping to fuel the continuing problem of obesity and related chronic conditions in the United States,” said Dr. Megan A. McCrory of the Department of Health Sciences at Sargent College, Boston University, who was the lead author of the study published Wednesday in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
McCrory said it was the longest-spanning and most in-depth look at fast food’s caloric energy and nutrient makeup, from decade to decade, that’s ever been conducted.
U.S. national survey data show fast food made up 11 percent of daily caloric intake between 2007 and 2010, according to the study.
“On any given day, about 37 percent of adults [under 20] eat fast food, while 45 percent of adults between the ages of 20 and 39 eat fast food,” McCrory said during a presentation about the study.
"Given the popularity of fast food, our study highlights one of the changes in our food environment that is likely part of the reason for the increase in obesity and related chronic conditions over the past several decades, which are now among the main causes of death in the U.S.”
McCrory and her fellow researchers looked at entrées, sides and desserts from 10 popular fast food chains – including McDonald’s, Dairy Queen and KFC – focusing on three representative years across a span of three decades: 1986, 1991 and 2016.
Researchers also analyzed food from Arby’s, Burger King, Carl’s Jr., Hardee’s, Jack in the Box, Long John Silver’s and Wendy’s, Quartz reports.
They found the number of menu items offered by the chains expanded by 226 percent; they also found calories, portion sizes and sodium content overall have increased over time.
First of all, entrées and desserts got bigger. Portion sizes for entrées gained 13 grams per decade. Desserts gained 24 grams per decade. The size of side items stayed relatively stable.
Calories increased significantly in entrées and desserts. Entrées gained nearly 100 calories over 30 years, by an average of 30 calories per decade. Desserts gained just under 200 calories overall, by an average of 62 calories per decade. Sides gained about 14 calories per decade.
The sodium content, however, increased significantly in all three menu categories – nearly 14 percent for entrées, 12 percent for sides and 3.6 percent for desserts overall.
Too much sodium can increase blood pressure and the risk of heart disease, McCrory said.
The study did find some nutritional improvements. Calcium increased significantly in entrées (by 1.2 percent per decade) and in desserts (by 3.9 percent per decade). Iron also increased significantly in desserts, by 1.4 percent per decade.
Calcium and iron can increase bone density and reduce anemia, McCrory said.
But she warned consumers not to consider that bit of good news as a reason to eat more fast food.
“Although these increases seem desirable, people should not be consuming fast food to get more calcium and iron in their diet because of the high calories and sodium that come along with it,” she said.