Our appetites might be to blame. 

By Tim Nelson
March 01, 2019
Photo courtesy Burger King

These days, most of us would admit that the average menu item at a fast food restaurant isn’t all that healthy. In recent years, chains across the country have been locked in an ongoing arms race, piling on more meat (especially bacon) and adding outlandish menu items that aim to improve profit margins at the expense of customers’ waistlines. Now, data suggests that the food we’ve been grabbing from drive-thru windows has indeed gotten worse for us over time.

A new study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics examined the offerings (including entrées, sides, and desserts) at the ten most popular fast food restaurants in 1986, 1991, and 2016. Their analysis found that not only has the number of menu items available at those places more than doubled from the ‘80s to today (a 226% increase), but fast food has gotten unhealthier on average across a variety of metrics.

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The study suggests that our growing appetites might be to blame. While the size of fries and other sides seems to have remained the same, portions for entrées and desserts ballooned over the timeline of the study: entrees increased by 13 grams per decade on average, and desserts went up a whopping 24 grams per decade. The number of calories in these items has increased proportionately: the average entrée features roughly 90 more calories than it did in 1986, and the average fast food dessert has about 186 more calories than it would have had in the mid-80s.

It’s not just the quantity of calories that’s gotten worse, but the quality of them as well. Sodium content skyrocketed across the board. Entrees are 14% saltier than they used to be. Sides—despite the relatively consistent portion size—saw a 12% sodium jump. Somehow, even desserts have 3.6% more sodium than they used to.

Given how pervasive fast food is in America’s eating culture, the study’s lead investigator believes it could have important implications for our eating habits.

“Calories, portion sizes, and sodium content overall have worsened (increased) over time and remain high," Megan A. McCrory, PhD, from Boston University’s Department of Health Sciences told Forbes. “Our study highlights one of the changes in our food environment that is likely part of the reason for the increase in obesity and related chronic conditions over the past several decades, which are now among the main causes of death in the U.S.”

So while you have more choices than ever when searching for fast food, the truth is that the signature items you’ll find at most places are probably going to be worse for you than they were back in the day. At least there are more salads on the menu than there used to be.

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