How Do Chain Restaurant Meals Stack Up to New Nutrition Guidelines?

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Calorie information, while helpful, leaves many consumers in the dark about how healthy - or not - their meals out really are.

New dietary guidelines are recommending that consumers eat more fruits and vegetables, but some nutritionists say that consumers are not being given the information they need to make informed decisions about their meals.

About 1 in 4 Americans eat at a fast food chain once a day and 8 in 10 report eating fast food once a month. While some chains are making an effort to add healthy options to their offerings, many chain restaurant meals leave consumers short when it comes to eating the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables.

“When changes in nutrition recommendations or medical advice are announced, consumers can become confused about what to do,” said Dr. Lenard Lesser, a nutrition researcher at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation Research Institute. “Calorie information, while helpful, still leaves many consumers in the dark about how healthy – or not – their meals out really are.”

To help consumers easily check the health ratings of meals at major chain restaurants, Lesser led a team of nutritionists to create (a play on the hunger hormone “Ghrelin”). Users can assess restaurants by chain or type of food, which are scored from zero (the worst) to 100 (healthiest). Results, just updated last week, are based on a more complete nutritional analysis than what restaurants provide and also factor in servings of fruits and vegetables.

The findings can be surprising.
There are 145 chain restaurants (from Au Bon Pain and Burger King to Subway and Taco Bell) and 45,000 menu items (salads, sandwiches, burgers, and much more) listed on While 100 is the healthiest possible score, the top ranking restaurant scores a 50 (Rubio’s). Slightly more than half of the restaurants on the site (75) have no score because, according to Lesser, the chains do not provide adequate nutrition information to properly assess the healthfulness of their meals.

“While new federal menu labeling laws go into effect later this year, calories and fat don’t give consumers the whole picture,” said Lesser. “ helps consumers go beyond calories to identify what’s healthy and what’s not, and that includes whether fruit and vegetables are part of the meal.”

In the absence of restaurants providing more and better information, Lesser hopes that will make it easier for consumers to make healthier choices. For example, In-N-Out Burger’s overall score is 36 while White Castle scores 9. To help consumers compare options, the site designates “walk scores” – how long it would take to “walk off” item if caloric intake exceeds the recommended 2,000 daily amount – for 42,000 items. For example, In-N-Out’s hamburger with onion on lettuce instead of a bun is rated as healthy with a walk score of 1.2 hours while Dairy Queen’s deluxe double cheeseburger is rated as unhealthy with a walk score of 3.2 hours. Scores are updated as new information becomes available.

Creators of will participate in the Partnership for a Healthier America Summit February 25-27 in Washington, DC.

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Susan Lamontagne
Public Interest Media Group
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