Main courses served at fast-casual restaurants tend to be higher-calorie than traditional fast-food entrees, despite public perception that the offerings at these outlets are healthier, U.S. researchers say.
Comparing more than 3,000 entrees, they found the average fast-casual meal had 200 more calories than the average fast food meal. Overall, more of the fast-casual dishes were at the high end of the calorie range as well.
“In recent years, there has been large growth in the fast-casual (e.g., Panera, Chipotle) restaurant sector, and there is a general perception among consumers that these restaurants are a healthier and fresher alternative to fast food,” lead author Danielle Schoffman said.
“When we encourage participants in our research studies to reduce their fast food intake, they often ask if these fast casual restaurants also ‘count,'” said Schoffman, a researcher with the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. “We were interested in looking at the calorie data for entrees at both restaurant types to see if they lined up with these assumptions.”
The researchers examined the calorie counts of 3,193 entrees sold at restaurants representing 24 different fast food chains and 28 fast-casual chains, according to the report in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
They found the average fast-casual entree had about 760 calories compared to the typical fast food entree with about 560 calories.
Schoffman said the study team was surprised by the overall results and by finding a greater proportion of fast casual restaurant entrees exceeded the median of 640 calories.
“This means that if a customer walks into a fast causal restaurant, there are more entree choices that are above this median of 640 calories than there would be at a fast food restaurant,” she said.