“We’re seeing new items we’ve never seen before,” Milgrim said. “The American public is probably not necessarily picking up on the nuanced increases in portion size year over year, decade over decade, that these new items entail.”
Fast food restaurants are more popular than ever, with nearly 2 out of 5 adults eating fast food on any given day, researchers said in background notes.
The average amount of total daily calories represented by fast food has more than doubled, rising from 4 percent of total caloric intake in 1977-1978 to 11 percent in 2007-2010.
For this study, the researchers reviewed menu items offered at 10 popular fast food restaurants in 1986, 1991 and 2016. The restaurants were 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.
Menus at these restaurants offer more selection than ever. The total number of entrees, desserts and sides increased by 226 percent, or about 23 items per year, researchers found.
But portion sizes also steadily increased over the years, a trend that reflects overall American eating patterns, McCrory said.
“I think we see an increase in portion size pretty much in the entire food supply,” McCrory said. “In some ways, the fast food restaurants are probably just keeping up with expectations of the size of the food people expect to be served. The same kind of things are happening in other restaurants that aren’t fast food.”
Milgrim said she’s most concerned with the steady increase in fast food’s salt content.
“These foods are just sodium-laden,” Milgrim said. “With obesity and hypertension as main causes of mortality among the American public, it’s so important for us to consider sodium.”
It’s not all bad news. Calcium and iron levels also increased in fast food over the years, meaning that folks are getting more of these important nutrients, McCrory said.
But given how calorie-rich fast food is, “there are better places to get calcium and iron,” McCrory added.
People who love fast food can take steps to cut back on calories, McCrory said.