You’re in a hurry, so you grab dinner at your favorite fast food restaurant – after all, it’s quick, convenient, and cheap. But by the time you toss that crumpled burger wrapper in the trash, chances are you’ve consumed a significant portion of your daily recommended calorie and saturated fat intake – in a single meal.
Eating fast food (or any processed food) laden with calories, unhealthy fats, and sodium is associated with increased risk of heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, and other health conditionsa - all serious and costly public health issues in the U.S. today. Yet Americans in their 20s and 30s get more than 15% of their daily calories from fast food.
You may not give up eating on the fly, but you can make better choices to enhance your overall health. Where can you find the heart healthiest fare? And which meals are most hazardous to your cardiovascular health? We crunched the nutrition numbers for the 10 most popular chains across the country: Burger King, Chick-fil-A, Dunkin’ Donuts, KFC, McDonald’s, Panera Bread, Sonic Drive-In, Subway, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s. Keep reading to find out how every chain’s burgers, fries, salads, and breakfasts stack up.
THE HEALTH COSTS OF A BURGER, FRIES, AND SODA
Burgers are a fast food favorite, but you’ll want to order carefully if you’re focused on heart health. Some burgers pack a hefty punch when it comes to calories and fat – especially less healthful fats like saturated fat and trans fat. Your best bet is to order a small burger (look for the options with “Junior” in the name or those simply called “hamburger”), and choose a single patty option rather than a double or triple burger. You can also ask them to hold the cheese and mayo.
ANALYZING FAST FOOD HAMBURGERS
Our Picks for Heart Health (based on AHA guidelines): Wendy’s, Burger King, and McDonald’s all have burgers that clock in at 250 calories or less and 10 grams of fat or less. A McDonald’s hamburger has 250 calories and 8 grams of fat (3 g saturated fat); a Burger King hamburger contains 230 calories and 9 grams of fat (3 g saturated fat); and a Wendy’s Jr. hamburger has 240 calories and 10 grams of fat (3.5 g saturated fat and 0.5 g trans fat).
Think Twice: Sonic Drive-In has five burgers that top 1,100 calories and 75 grams of fat. The heftiest: the SuperSonic bacon double cheeseburger with mayo, at 1,240 calories and 87 grams of fat (35 g saturated fat and 3.5 g trans fat), as well as 1,690 mg of sodium. Wendy’s Baconator, which tops the charts for sodium at 1,810 mg, has 930 calories and 62 grams of fat (24 g saturated fat and 3 g trans fat). Burger King’s double Whopper has 900 calories and 58 grams of fat (20 g saturated fat and 3 g trans fat) – and cheese adds more fat and calories.
ANALYZING FAST FOOD FRENCH FRIES
Although they’re usually served as an accompaniment to a main meal, a large order of salty, greasy fries at a fast food restaurant tends to pack enough calories, fat, and sodium to stand alone. Many chains offer alternative sides, such as soup or a side salad, in place of fries. If you do order fries, it’s a good idea to stick to a small order rather than a large.
Our Picks for Heart Health (based on AHA guidelines): The two lightest options for fries are Sonic Drive-In natural-cut fries at 470 calories and 22 grams of fat (4 g saturated fat); and Burger King French fries with 500 calories and 22 grams of fat (3.5 g saturated fat). (Though Burger King’s fries are highest in sodium, this may be because it is the only chain to note that its fries are salted in its nutrition data.)
Think Twice: With 520 calories and 27 grams of fat (4 g saturated fat), Chick-fil-A waffle potato fries are the highest in fat and second-highest in calories of the chains we examined. (However, they do have the lowest sodium content.) Wendy’s fries have 530 calories and 24 grams of fat (4.5 g saturated fat).
ANALYZING FAST FOOD SALADS
Some fast food salads are as heavy on fat and calories than a burger. If you order a salad, keep it lighter by opting for grilled chicken rather than “fried” or “crispy,” don’t use the whole packet of dressing, and skip the add-ons such as croutons and bacon. (Note that portion sizes vary, as some salads are meant to be sides while others serve as meals.)
Our Picks for Heart Health (based on AHA guidelines): KFC offers two side salads for 15 and 40 calories, respectively. Chick-Fil-A’s side salad has 80 calories and 4.5 grams of fat (3 g saturated fat). Subway offers numerous salad options under 250 calories, including the Veggie Delite and oven-roasted chicken salad. Panera Bread has several salads under 200 calories including kids’ salads (plus, the restaurant offers half orders); McDonald’s has a side salad plus two other options (if you hold the chicken); Wendy’s has one (garden side salad), and Burger King has one (garden side salad).
Think Twice: Wendy’s Spicy Chicken Caesar Salad (full size) tops the charts at 790 calories and 51 grams of fat (16 g saturated fat). Panera Bread’s Chicken Cobb with avocado clocks in at 660 calories and 50 grams of fat (11 g saturated fat). Burger King’s bacon cheddar ranch chicken salad (tendercrisp) has 720 calories and 50 grams of fat (13 g saturated fat). Taco Bell’s Fiesta Taco Salad (beef) has 770 calories, 40 grams of fat (10 g of saturated fat), and 1,590 mg of sodium.
THE HEALTH COSTS OF A FAST FOOD BREAKFAST
If you’re running late for work or on your way out of town, grabbing breakfast on the go can be convenient. Start your day right by seeking foods that contain protein and fiber so you’ll feel full longer. Stick to reasonable portion sizes, and watch for breakfasts high on fat, sodium, and sugar. If you’re thirsty, pick water or black coffee rather than soda, a sweetened coffee beverage, or a smoothie.
ANALYZING FAST FOOD BREAKFASTS
Our Picks for Heart Health (based on AHA guidelines): Many chains offer low-cal, low-fat breakfast options. Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Dunkin’ Donuts serve oatmeal. Panera Bread has a fruit cup, and McDonald’s also has a parfait made from fruit and yogurt. Several chains, including Subway and Dunkin’ Donuts, offer breakfast sandwiches or wraps under 350 calories.
Think Twice: Burger King’s Ultimate Breakfast Platter packs the heftiest punch, at 1,190 calories, 66 grams of fat (15 g saturated fat), and 2,460 mg of sodium. The Big Breakfast offerings at McDonald’s also rank on the high end – especially the Big Breakfast with hotcakes and a large biscuit, at 1,150 calories, 60 grams of fat (20 g saturated fat), and 2,260 mg of sodium. Sonic Drive-In’s breakfast options vary in calories and fat content, but many are higher than average in sodium.
MAPPING FAST FOOD OPTIONS
No matter where you live in the U.S., chances are you don’t have to drive too far to find a fast food restaurant. But some states certainly offer more opportunities than others for that burger/donut/taco run. We mapped the prevalence of 10 popular fast food restaurants per 100,000 residents in every state to see which areas are lightest (and heaviest) on fast food fare. A glance at the map reveals that overall, the Northwest and the West skimp on fast food joints, while the Midwest, Southeast, and Southwest have comparatively more locations.
STATES WITH THE MOST FAST FOOD OPTIONS
Which state takes the cake when it comes to these 10 fast food joints? New Hampshire. The small state is home to more than 37 fast food restaurants for every 100,000 residents. Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Arkansas are hot on its heels. On the other hand, California is the lightest on quick fare, with only slightly more than 17 fast food joints per 100,000 residents. Alaska, Montana, Washington state, and Hawaii are similarly sparse when it comes to fast food restaurants.
CITIES WITH THE MOST FAST FOOD OPTIONS
Next, we zoomed in on cities with populations of 50,000 people or more. Examining the number of these 10 fast food restaurants per 100,000 residents in these cities reveals some surprises. Though Florida as a state didn’t make the top 10, 7 of the 10 top fast food cities are in the Sunshine State. Pensacola tops the list, with more than 160 restaurants per 100,000 residents, and Marietta, GA, comes second with more than 156. The only northern city in the top 10 is Lancaster, PA, in 10th place with just over 94.
On the low end, the results are a mixed bag. Florida, Georgia, and California each have two cities in the bottom 10. At the very bottom, San Buenaventura, CA, is the only city to have fewer than one fast food restaurant per every 100,000 people; Bossier City, LA, has fewer than two. Utah, Minnesota, and Michigan are also each home to a city in the bottom 10.
Making Smart Choices for Heart Health
When it comes to eating healthfully, there’s no place like home. However, our study revealed some interesting food for thought about quick grub in the U.S. Each restaurant offers numerous menu items that vary in calories, fat content, and sodium – including options that can derail even the healthiest diet. With a little knowledge and planning, you can ensure you’re making the best choices possible.
Start by scanning the nutritional information so you can skip menu items heavy on calories, fat, and salt. For instance, you can avoid fried foods, opt for a smaller portion, or order your salad with dressing on the side. Also, skip the soda in favor of water to cut down on sugar consumption. These small changes can add up to big results in your overall health.
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Restaurant locations: AggData.com
Population data: http://factfinder.census.gov/
For this project, we looked at nutrition data for several fast food restaurants to compare calories, total fat, and sodium. Every effort was made to ensure that this project reflects the most recent nutritional data available, but note that in some cases restaurants may have updated their nutritional data since we collected the in formation.
Restaurant locations were determined using AggData.com. With this detailed set of location information for 10 fast food restaurants, we were able to determine the total number of these fast food chains per 100,000 state and city residents (only in cities with populations over 50,000). State population data were gathered from 2015 Census Bureau estimates, and city population data from 2014 Census Bureau estimates.
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