Brain and Body

Trying to Cut Calories? Opting for Chipotle Over McDonald’s May Not Be a Good Idea After All

May 12, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Chipotle salad
Photo credit: Michael Saechang/flickr (CC by SA 2.0)

New research finds many fast casual restaurants are higher in calories than fast food.

If you’re on a diet and looking to cut calories, choosing a fast casual restaurant over a fast food joint may not actually be the best choice, according to a new study.

Researchers from the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina found that entrées at fast casual restaurants, like Chipotle and Panera, have a higher average calorie count than fast food establishments, like McDonald’s or Bojangles’ Famous Chicken and Biscuits.

The study results, which appear in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, show that an average meal at a fast casual restaurant is 200 calories higher than a typical meal at a fast food place.

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After analyzing the menus at 34 fast food joints and 28 fast casual restaurants, the researchers found that fast casual meals averaged in at 760 calories compared to 561 calories for fast food meals. The researchers also accounted for the many ways in which people can customize their meals at both types of restaurants and factored in the standard order choices. For instance, with salads they added in ranch dressing since it’s the most popular choice.

Additionally, the fast casual restaurants tended to have more high-calorie options on their menus than the fast food restaurants.

Intuitively, the researchers said they thought that fast casual meals wouldn’t contain a higher calorie count than fast food, but previous research on the topic was lacking.

"We were surprised that there were higher calories at fast casual restaurants, but one of the main takeaways from the paper is that there are a lot of high-calorie options at both kinds of restaurants," Danielle Schoffman, the lead researcher, said in a press statement.

"There has been such growth in this fast casual industry," fellow researcher Brie Turner-McGrievy said. "We wanted to see if these fast casual restaurants would be a better choice for people who are watching their calorie intake. Are people who are looking to lose weight and cut calories better off going to Chipotle or Burger King?"

The researchers note that they didn’t look at the nutritional profiles or any other source of food value other than calorie count. So, while a meal at Chipotle or Panera contains more calories than a McDonald’s meal, the researchers say it’s possible that the food at fast casual restaurants may have higher diet quality, less sodium, or more fiber — more calories doesn’t necessarily mean it’s less healthy.

"A burger on a white bun may have fewer calories, but when you're talking about cancer prevention or other chronic diseases, you have to look beyond calories," Turner-McGrievy said. "We don't want the message to be, 'Go eat hamburgers and don't eat guacamole and beans and brown rice.' "

The researchers hope that further studies will investigate the nutritional values and other health benefits of food at fast casual restaurants versus fast food joints.

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