Researchers looked at offerings from 10 of the most popular fast food chains from three representative years across a three-decade span: 1986, 1991 and 2016. Focusing on entrees, sides and desserts, they analyzed changes in portion sizes, calories and sodium content over time.
Although the variety of foods in that span exploded by 226% (about 23 new items every year), the findings on calories, portions and sodium was not what one would expect considering all those salads, grilled chicken and other supposedly healthier meals.
“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 over time and remain high," said lead investigator Megan McCrory from the Department of Health Sciences at Boston University.
Calories in entrees, sides and desserts all increased significantly, mainly due to increases in portion sizes. The study found that for each decade, entree sizes increased by 13 grams (the equivalent of about 30 calories per decade) and desserts by 24 grams (the equivalent of 62 calories per decade). Side-item portions stayed relatively stable, but their calorie content still increased by about 14 calories per decade.
Sodium content also jumped in all three categories: by nearly 14% in entrees, 12% in sides and 3.6% in desserts, based on daily-recommended values.
There is no doubt that you can choose the healthier offerings and be diligent in reading the nutrition statements before you order—you know, those posters that are usually around the corner by the restrooms—but the reality is that if fast-food restaurants truly want to sell healthier foods, it's time to reformulate and change portion sizes.