Sure, a balanced, home-cooked meal is almost always better for you than greasy fast-food fare, but sometimes the drive-through or airport food court is all you have time for. At least many of the major convenience chains have cleaned up their acts lately, slashing calories from classic favorites and rounding out their menus with much-healthier "gourmet" salads and "artisan" wraps, right? Not so fast. While Ronald McDonald, Colonel Sanders, and crew want you to think they've broke healthy by advertising freshness and variety, a new study shows that their grub is barely any better for you than it was 15 years ago. Comparing the calorie content of food from eight leading fast-food joints between 1997 and 2010, researchers found that, although the number of menu items skyrocketed by 53 percent, the average calorie counts stayed just about the same.
Breaking it down by category, median calories of entrées and drinks didn't change, while that of condiments and desserts jumped up. "The dessert category really surprised us," says lead researcher Katherine Bauer, a public health professor at Temple University. "On average, these items have 500 calories – more than any other type of food. You can have an entrée and a side and then double the amount of calories by ordering dessert." As for the beverages category's non-improvement, "there's been a huge increase in sweetened teas, but these are just empty calories, the same as soda," she explains.
The researchers did find that the average calorie count of side items decreased, thanks to more small salad options and a shrinking of French fry order sizes, Bauer says. Even so, a salad goes from light to calorie laden really quickly, as soon as you squeeze on Ranch or add extra croutons. And if you go with a larger, entrée-sized salad, be especially careful: "Salads have the impression of being low calorie, but once you add dressing and fried chicken, the amount of calories will exceed what you want in a meal portion," Bauer says.
Still, this isn't all bad news. Bauer says you can definitely craft a decent meal from many of these menus when fast food is your only option – which, truth be told, it sometimes is. You just need to be smart. "Order pieces of meals instead of combo deals," she says. "For instance, a small cheeseburger is actually fairly low calorie. For a side, order a salad without dressing, and skip the fries and soda." Keep condiments from sabotaging your meal by shunning mayo and going with mustard instead, and save your dessert splurge for another time, like when your mom plates you a piece of her famous pecan pie.
Soon it will become easier to mine fast-food menus for low-cal options. Once the new rules of the Affordable Care Act kick in, chains with more than 20 locations will have to list calories on menus. But for now it's on you to gauge – and to resist falling prey to a Number 4 with Coke and a size upgrade for only 79 cents.