Avoiding Fast Food to Lower Calories Can Backfire

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Counting calories is a drag. Yet how do you lose weight if you don't know: (a) how many calories you should eat, and (b) the calorie content of your foods? One scheme is to avoid fast-food restaurants such as McDonald's and Burger King, and move towards so-called fast-casual eateries — for example Chipotle or Panera. Their food is supposedly healthier, so it must be lighter too, right? Well, according to a recent report in the Journal of Nutrition and Dietetics, taking that step could well backfire.

Led by Ms. Danielle E. Schoffman from the University of South Carolina, a team of researchers analyzed the calorie content of lunch and dinner entrees from both types of restaurants based on their menus in 2014. In all, they examined nearly 3,200 entrees from 34 fast-food and 28 fast-casual restaurants. Those from the fast-casual restaurants contained significantly more calories (760) than those from the fast-food sites (561 calories). So in general, simply switching lunch or dinner spots to fast-casual restaurants will obviously not necessarily help with cutting calories.

But that's just the overall picture — it's surely true that one can select lower calorie items from the menus at either type of restaurant. What needs to be further investigated, according to the authors, is to assess the calorie contents of full meals chosen at each type of venue. Do consumers at fast-casual restaurants choose lower calorie meals than fast-food consumers? Do they pick diet drinks or water rather than full-calorie beverages? Simply looking at the overall possibilities is just the first step in assessing the potential impact of the menus at each type.

It seems most likely that calorie-conscious consumers can find what they want at either fast-food or fast-casual restaurants — it's a matter of making informed choices.