Fast food even worse than we thought, study shows

It seems it should be common sense by now that fast food is not a particularly healthful option. A recent analysis of the offerings at 10 popular U.S. fast food restaurants found it is even more unhealthy than it was 30 years ago, according to a new study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The analysis looked at fast food entrees, sides, and dessert menu items in 1986, 1991, and 2016, according to the study’s abstract. Over the years, the food products have increases significantly in calories, sodium, and portion sizes over time. The study also found that new or discontinued items tended to be less healthy than those available throughout the study period.

Data were collected using The Fast Food Guide published in 1986 and 1991, as well as online sources in 2016. The total number of entrees, sides, and desserts increased by 226 percent, or 22.9 items per year, said the study. Calories increased significantly, especially in desserts and entrees, which had a 62 calorie and 30 calorie increase, respectively. The increases, researchers say, were mainly due to increased portion size. Entrees increased 13 grams per decade and desserts 24 grams per decade.

Sodium also increased significantly across the menus. Additionally, of the four restaurants that reported on calcium and iron content, calcium increased in entrees and desserts, while iron levels increased in desserts as well.

"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 Megan A. McCrory, PhD, lead investigator and faculty for the department of health sciences at Sargent College and Boston University, both in Boston, Massachusetts, in a statement released by the journal. “Despite the vast number of choices offered at fast-food restaurants, some of which are healthier than others, the calories, portion sizes, and sodium content overall have worsened, increased, over time and remain high.”

There are better food sources that do not come with high calories and sodium found in fast food, experts say. McCrory says she hopes the study’s findings lead to more awareness and solutions.

"We need to find better ways to help people consume fewer calories and sodium at fast-food restaurants.” she said in the statement. “The requirement that chain restaurants display calories on their menus is a start. We would like to see more changes, such as restaurants offering smaller portions at proportional prices.”