Fast-food menu offerings vary in dietary quality, but are consistently poor

By analyzing the food menus from the top fast-food restaurant chains in America, new research published in the journal Public Health Nutrition shows that these restaurants do not offer many menu items that meet dietary guidelines for healthy eating. Even those menu items that were part of the kid’s menu or marketed specifically as healthy, still fell far short of meeting dietary recommendations for fruit, vegetables, and whole grains.

Current dietary guidelines focus on encouraging Americans to eat healthy by increasing their consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy and decreasing calories from solid fats (e.g., butter, cream) and added sugars. In order to determine the extent to which fast-food chains meet the dietary guidelines, researchers analyzed the menus from the top five fast-food chain restaurants (Burger King, McDonald’s, Subway, Taco Bell and Wendy’s) using the Healthy Eating Index-2005 (HEI-2005), a measure of diet quality. Researchers also looked at menu items specifically marketed for children, menu items that comprised a dollar or value menu, and those items that were advertised as healthier options.

Researchers found that each restaurant’s full menu scored fewer than 50 points on the HEI-2005 relative to a maximum of 100 points, which would be a perfect alignment with dietary guidance. The components that scored the poorest reflect the overall dietary patterns of many Americans. Menus did not have enough Whole Fruit, Dark Green and Orange Vegetables and Legumes, and Whole Grains and had too many calories from Solid Fats and Added Sugars. However, all five restaurants were close to meeting the recommendations for Total Grains and Meat and Beans components, areas where many Americans tend to be better at eating the recommended amount of servings.

Dollar or value menus were a bit better at meeting dietary recommendations. Generally, both the dollar/value menus and the children’s menus scored better than the restaurant’s offerings overall. However, the dollar menu at McDonald’s is a notable exception. Subway’s value menu ($5 Footlongs), which includes several varieties of sandwiches but no beverages or snacks/desserts, was judged the healthiest receiving a high score of 57.3 points. Subway also received the highest score for kid’s menus (72.0 points) for meeting recommendations for Whole Fruit, Total Vegetables, Total Grains, Milk, Meat and Beans, Saturated Fat, and Calories from Solid Fats and Added Sugars.

Subway and Taco Bell also market some menu items as healthy, and Wendy’s identifies nutritious items. Though these items are more in line with dietary recommendations, receiving on average 17 points higher than the scores for the full menus, they still did not include enough in Total Fruit, Whole Fruit, Whole Grains, and Milk.

Though there are many initiatives aimed at improving the healthfulness of fast-food study authors suggest that given the discrepancy between recommendations for health eating and fast-food menus, ongoing monitoring is needed to assess the effects of such initiatives and to determine the need for additional interventions in this area.

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