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Fast Food Packs More Calories Today Than 30 Years Ago

If you went to a fast food restaurant in the 1970s, you weren't under the illusion that it was healthy. Companies like Burger King, KFC, McDonald's and Wendy's were serving up higher fat, higher salt and higher calorie items fast and cheap. In 1978 about 4% of all food consumed in the American diet came from fast food. By 2010, that number had grown to 11%.

The 1970s also marked the onset of America's obesity epidemic. In 1976 the average man weighed 172.2 pounds and the average woman, 144.2 pounds. That number slowly increased each year, until 2014 when the average man topped 195.7 pounds the average woman hit 168.5 pounds. Obesity levels nearly doubled from 22% in the 1980s to a staggering 40% in 2016. An astounding 71% of Americans are currently either overweight or obese.

Researchers from the Department of Health Sciences at Boston University, decided to look into what fast food restaurants were serving. They compared the food at 10 national chains: Arby’s, Burger King, Carl’s Jr, Dairy Queen, Hardee’s, Jack in the Box, KFC, Long John Silver’s, McDonald’s and Wendy’s. Comparisons were made for the years 1986, 1991 and 2016.

What they found, was that the average entree increased in size by 30 calories a decade. Desserts went up an average of 62 calories a decade. If you ordered an average entree and dessert in 1986 and again in 2016, the modern version would pack on an extra 276 calories.

Just 70 extra calories a day can cause 70 pounds of weight gain in 10 years. That kind of growth can turn a slender 18-year old into an obese 28-year old.

"Given the popularity of fast food, 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.," says lead investigator Megan McCrory, Ph.D.

It's not as if fast food restaurants are unaware of what they're doing. They simply respond to what people are buying. If one patty on your burger is too small, they'll make it two. With two patties, you'll need extra cheese. Of course you'll want to top it with bacon and then you'll need a bigger bun to hold it all.

As the obesity epidemic grew worse, regulators started looking at fast food restaurants to clean up their act. Politicians wanted them to have healthier offerings, with some cities passing laws to force menu changes.

Several national chains decided they needed to make it appear like they cared. In 2013 McDonald's pledged to feature only water, milk and juice as the beverage in Happy Meals on menu boards and in-store and external advertising directed to children. In 2015 Burger King promised that instead of soft drinks on menu boards, the BK menu for kids will offer fat-free milk, 100% apple juice, and low-fat chocolate milk. 2015 was also the year Wendy's said they would remove carbonated soft drinks from the kids' meal listing on menu boards, both inside restaurants and at pick-up windows.

It didn't really help. Researchers from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Uconn found that in 2018, fast food restaurants still automatically serve soda and French fries with kids meal orders. In-store signage continues to promote unhealthy options and little is done to make parents aware of their healthier choices.

Fast food restaurants are in business to make money. They're not going to offer healthier foods if nobody buys them. The power to make a change is in your hands.

Start by limiting your visits to fast food restaurants. Prepare more food at home, it won't take any extra time out of your day. The time you take to pack a healthy lunch at home, is about the same as it takes to drive to, order and receive a meal from a local fast food place. Plus the home version can be made cheaper and healthier.

If you have to eat out, read how many calories each serving has. Limit the meals you order to 500 calories or less. Ask for apple slices instead of fries. Get the bottled water instead of soda. If enough people quit ordering the mega-calorie fat burgers, they'll stop selling them.

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