Chain Restaurants Aren’t Getting Healthier Despite Marketing, Perception

You might think chain restaurants, including fast food and other away-from-home options, are offering healthier food. After all, restaurants regularly announce healthy menu changes and are facing pressure from nutrition experts to create healthier choices.


But here’s the reality: “The state of restaurant nutrition makes it very difficult to have a healthy meal,” said Helen Wu, a researcher whose study appeared in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The study showed that top U.S. food chain entrees haven’t changed much in terms of nutrition.

You see, right before Burger King released their new Satisfries, the company introduced its French Fry Burger. The latter option having 360 calories, 19 grams of fat and 490 mg of sodium.

“Across the restaurant industry, we see a pattern of one step forward, one step back,” Wu said. “Restaurants make changes to their menus regularly, but they may make both healthy and unhealthy changes simultaneously.”

The study evaluated changes to more than 26,000 entrees at 213 chain restaurants, including fast food, and was a follow-up to an earlier study in the journal Public Health Nutrition. The Public Health Nutrition study found that 96 percent of entrees by top U.S. chain restaurants failed to meet daily limits for calories, sodium, fat and saturated fat.


The new study found that overall calorie and sodium levels in main entrees from 2010 to 2011 have remained the same. (The average entree in 2010 had about 670 calories and 1,515 milligrams of sodium, while the average entree in 2011 had about the same amount of calories and sodium levels of 1,500 milligrams of sodium, which is the maximum people should consume every day, according to Third Age.)

The study examined menu changes the year after the federal government passed a menu-labeling mandate as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. The FDA has yet to issue final regulations directing chain restaurants to post caloric numbers on menus. Some restaurants, including McDonald’s, are already posting calorie counts. However, studies have shown that calorie counts don’t impact consumer choices. In fact, people are actually choosing higher caloric meals.

Perhaps part of the problem is that many people don’t really know how many calories they should be consuming per day or why consuming too many is bad for their health (because it contributes to weight gain and other problems).

And maybe even more encouragement is needed to make restaurants offer healthier choices. For example, in L.A., restaurants participating in the Choose Health L.A. Restaurants program can post a large decal on their window. If they offer smaller portion sizes and healthier children’s meals, with less fried food and more fruits and veggies, they can display the program decal at their establishment.


Today, Americans consume about one-third of their total calories eating away from home, and ultimately, it’s up to us as consumers to take the time to learn what’s in the food we’re being served and to demand healthy options. We’re not just searching for options that seem healthy but really aren’t — We’re looking at you McDonald’s oatmeal.

As Wu said, “Consumers need to realize it’s sort of a dietary landmine when they step into restaurants.”


She also said she hopes having transparent information about food products “will eventually drive consumer demand and then also drive restaurants to offer more appealing and more nutritious menu items.”

So, yes, consumers, it’s up to us to make our voices heard and tell chain restaurants we want healthful foods. If we make our demands heard and don’t give up, they will have to listen.

Image Source: Joey/Flickr