Summer 2015

Not Supersized, but Still Not Good

A hundred extra calories a day can pile on 10 pounds in a year

We all know that fast-food portions and their associated calories have continued to balloon for the last two decades—except that they haven’t.

Two Tufts studies looked at the nutrition data on cheeseburgers, grilled chicken sandwiches, fries and colas served by three national fast-food chains between 1996 and 2013. They found that the average calories in those items were high, but stayed pretty much the same over that time, as

Illustration: Alex Nabaum

Illustration: Alex Nabaum

did sodium and saturated fat. One noticeable change was in the fries, which declined in saturated fats in 2001, and then in trans fats between 2005 and 2009, most likely the result of legislation.

“However, the variability among chains is considerable,” says Alice H. Lichtenstein, D.Sc., the Gershoff Professor at the Friedman School and the director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, who led the studies, which were published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease. Depending on the chain, in 2013 a large cheeseburger with fries and a regular cola ranged from 1,144 to 1,757 calories (an entire day’s worth for some people). A small order of fries could differ by as much as 110 calories and 320 mg of sodium from chain to chain.

Consumers should look for the actual counts on calories, salt and saturated fat, information that more restaurants are making available at the counter. “A 100-calorie difference per day can mean about a 10-pound weight change per year,” Lichtenstein says.

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