A recent New Yorker story documented the shift in mindset of young people who are increasingly concerned with diet and health. While they eat out a lot, these consumers opt for “fast casual dining,” shunning fast food and “the ubiquitous chains that have long shaped the American culture,” institutions like McDonald’s, Burger King, Dunkin Donuts, and Pizza Hut. The emergence of “fast casual” restaurants—such as Chipotle, Shake Shack, Smashburger, and Panera Bread—plays into consumers’ desires for food that’s fast, healthful, not highly-processed, and more environmentally friendly. Many restaurants have also started displaying the caloric values of meals, which has guided consumers away from traditional fast food, according to a 2010 report.
But these fast casual restaurants might not be as healthy as people think, says a new study conducted by researchers at the Arnold School of Public Health from the University of South Carolina. While the team assumed meals at fast food restaurants would contain more calories, after analyzing the menus of 34 fast food and 28 fast casual restaurants they found that an average fast casual meal contained 200 more calories than meals at fast food joints. Fast casual restaurants also had more high-caloric (defined as meals containing more than 640 calories) options available to diners.
Indeed, earlier research has found that “as the popularity of healthier menus increases, so does the weight of many Americans.” Researchers have found that despite calorie count listings now appearing at many restaurants, a “health halo” causes people to “underestimate the caloric content of main dishes and to choose higher‐calorie side dishes, drinks, or desserts when fast‐food restaurants claim to be healthy (e.g., Subway) compared to when they do not (e.g., McDonald’s).” So even when diners think they are making healthier choices by choosing a “healthier” fast-food or a fast casual restaurant, they tend to order high-calorie items anyway, or in addition to their lower-calorie main dish. It’s a familiar mental equation to anyone who’s ever said to themselves, Oh I was so good and ate that salad, now I deserve a treat...
Of course, a major caveat of the USC study is that the researchers didn’t investigate the nutritional profile or any other source of food value beyond calorie count. And as far as weight gain and obesity go, health experts have said that not all calories are created equal. For instance, a burger on a white bun might have fewer calories than a burrito bowl with roasted veggies and beans, but it might not measure up in terms of fiber or protein content that also confer nutritional value and can better satiate hunger. Looks like it’s still up to consumers to seek out the information they need to make their own healthful choices.