Little Changes Seen in Fast Food Portion Sizes Since 1996

A new study by researchers at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University shows portion sizes of fast foods did not change much between 1996 and 2013. The USDA researchers analyzed the calorie, sodium, saturated fat and trans fat content of cheeseburgers, french fries, cola beverages and grilled chicken sandwiches at three national fast-food chains between 1996 and 2013. They found that average calories, sodium, and saturated fat stayed fairly constant—and high, except for declines in the trans fat content of fresh fries since about 2006.

“There is a perception that restaurants have significantly expanded their portion sizes over the years, but the fast food we assessed does not appear to be part of that trend,” says Alice H. Lichtenstein, D.Sc., director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at the Center on Aging and a professor at the School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. “Our analysis indicates relative consistency in the quantities of calories, saturated fat and sodium.”

The researchers found that a large cheeseburger meal with fries and a regular cola beverage, sold at all three restaurants had calorie ranges of 1144 to 1757 for the three foods over the years studied. Lichtenstein says that calorie level represents 57 percent to 88 percent of the approximately 2000 calories most people should eat per day. “That does not leave much wiggle room for the rest of the day,” said Lichtenstein.

Lichtenstein says consumers can reduce calorie and sodium intake by comparing nutritional information posted by most national fast food chains and choosing the restaurants whose versions of those foods are lowest in calories, fat and salt. Lichtenstein added that “restaurants can help consumers by downsizing portion sizes and reformulating their food to contain less of these over-consumed nutrients.  This can be done, gradually, by cutting the amount of sodium, and using leaner cuts of meat and reduced-fat cheese.”

The study was published in Preventing Chronic Disease.

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