McDonald's Greek Salad with Kale

Three Decades of “Healthy” Choices and Fast Food Salads

Three decades have passed since McDonald’s started selling us fast food salads. Consumers want to eat healthy – whatever that is. So fast food outlets are serving us ever more healthy-sounding food that tastes great. In larger portions, with more calories and more sodium than ever. These are the findings of new study by Megan McCrory and colleagues in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Analyzing Fast Food Menus

McCrory analyzed the entrées, sides, and desserts on the menu for ten top chains. They found a stunning 226 percent increase in the variety of options on offer. In addition, entrées and desserts kept getting bigger and delivering more calories. The new items seem to be fuelling that growth. Items that stayed on the menu across the years did not.

In 2016, for example, entrées were 24 percent bigger than they were in 1986. Calories were up by 28 percent. The average dessert grew even more. Portion size increased by 71 percent. Calories went up by 145 percent.

Want to eat healthy? Grab a plant-based burger at Carl’s Jr. Just 710 calories on Carl’s “Better for You” menu. Compare that to the original McDonald’s hamburger at 250 calories.

Satisfying Consumers

Above all, the consumers are looking for convenient food that offers good taste and good value at these restaurants. If it sounds healthy, that’s a bonus. However, sounding healthy is a pretty low bar. Customers hear it. They might read about it. But they can’t touch it or taste it. So taste, value, and variety carry the day.

Three decades ago, fast food restaurants were responding to demands for healthier foods. Back then the AHA’s Scott Ballin told CQ Researcher that change was coming:

American taste buds will have to change. Fatty foods taste great. So the industry has to come up with ways to remove the fat and cholesterol but still cater to consumer taste buds.

McDonald’s responded and launched the McLean Deluxe. It flopped. And the definition of “healthy” fast food changed. The fat and cholesterol boogeyman faded. Plenty of other healthy-sounding options followed – like the Greek salad with kale and grilled chicken pictured above. It has about the same calories, fat, and sodium as a double cheeseburger.

FDA is still chasing a better definition for healthy food. We wish them luck. But in the quest for healthy-ish fast food, we may be deceiving ourselves. So long as we gulp food on the run, eating is only a chore to be finished. Not an occasion for pleasure. Such conditions might keep us from eating healthy. Whatever that is.

Click here for the study from McCrory et al and here for more from the New York Times.

McDonald’s Greek Salad with Kale, photograph by McDonald’s Canada

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2 Responses to “Three Decades of “Healthy” Choices and Fast Food Salads”

  1. March 05, 2019 at 6:59 am, Mary-Jo said:

    There are foods and amounts of foods that help to get and keep the body healthy and foods and amounts of foods that have health-debilitating effects on the body. And what those foods are vary from individual to individual, depending on factors unique to them. It would behoove every medical practice in the states to have dietitians onboard to help patients/clients know what and how they can eat as a crucial part of their effective healthcare, not just as a 15 minute afterthought if other treatments are not working optimally.

    • March 05, 2019 at 8:02 am, Ted said:

      Amen Mary-Jo