You may have already read the headlines screaming "Fast food is healthier than fast casual!" But the real story is a lot different than those catchy headlines might have you believe.
A recent study found that, on average, entrées at fast-casual restaurants have more calories than those consumed at fast-food joints. Specifically, fast-food entrées had an average of 561 calories, while fast-casual entrées had an average of 760 calories.
The authors of the study note that further research needs to be done to see if the same holds true once you calculate the caloric totals of full meals that include sides and drinks.
And the calorie numbers don't tell you anything about the actual nutritional density of the food you're consuming.
Think about it. If you go to McDonald's and get a medium Big Mac meal with fries and a diet soda, what nutrients are you giving your body? A lot of fat, some low-quality protein, empty carbohydrates and artificial sweetener. Compare that to a burrito bowl at Chipotle. Sure, it may be more caloric, but you're getting complex carbs in the form of beans and brown rice, you can choose a lean protein like chicken or sofritas, and you get vegetables in the form of lettuce, salsa and grilled veggies if you're so inclined. You're getting way more fiber in the second meal, and more vitamins, to boot.
And, like... it tastes better?
Maybe that's just me, but I'm willing to take on a few extra calories if it means I don't have to eat a rubbery grease-burger for lunch.
Saying something is healthy based on calorie content is a false equivalency, and it's not even what the original study said. A Hershey's bar has 214 calories. An avocado has 234. But do you really think a Hershey's bar is healthier since it is less caloric? It's fun to pretend yes when your chocolate craving strikes, but I don't think so.
If you're watching your calories, it is helpful to know that fast-casual meals can be more caloric than one might think. But you're probably far better off eating a smaller portion of food from a fast-casual restaurant than throwing in the towel and getting a fast-food burger. Save half of that sandwich for later, and hungry future-you will thank you.
The hype over this study is just another reminder that when it comes to articles about health and food, sometimes you have to dig deeper to get to the truth. Trying to eat nutritious food is hard enough, so can we quit it with the misleading headlines already?
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