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Fast Food Restaurants Have More Work to Do to Provide Healthy Alternatives

Update Date: May 08, 2013 11:35 AM EDT

Fast food restaurants are practically an inescapable part of the American landscape. In fact, 25 percent of Americans eat fast food at least twice per week. Consumer advocates and nutritionists have put pressure on many fast food restaurants to offer healthier menu items, and restaurants like Subway have made names for themselves in the offering of "healthier fast food". However, according to two new studies, it seems that is not enough, and that many fast food restaurants have a long way to go in terms of providing healthy food.

The first study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, was conducted by researchers at University of California, Los Angeles; the Palo Alto Medical Foundation Research Institute and the Western University in Health Sciences. The researchers performed the study with 97 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 21 at a food court in Carson, California. The participants went to either Subway or McDonald's and ordered a meal, then furnished the receipt to the researchers so that they could record what the participants ate and break down the nutritional information.

The results were rather grim. Though Subway is marketed as a healthy fast food option, adolescents ate virtually the same amount of calories as they did at McDonald's: 955 compared to 1,038. "We found that there was no statistically significant difference between the two restaurants, and that participants ate too many calories at both," Dr. Lenard Lesser said in a statement. "The nutrient profile at Subway was slightly healthier, but the food still contained three times the amount of salt that the Institute of Medicine recommends."

Another recent study examined whether fast food restaurants' menu items had improved in recent years. This analysis was recorded after researchers looked at the menus of McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Arby's and Jack and the Box between the years of 1997 and 2010. Though many fast food restaurants have created ad campaigns based on how many healthy items that they have on the menu, TIME reports that, on a 100-point scale, fast food restaurants' options have barely moved the needle, going from 45 to 48.

The study, published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, finds that many serving sizes are a third the size of portion offerings. The researchers acknowledge that some fast food restaurants, like West Coast chain Jack in the Box, have made progress by offering more whole grains and lowering saturated fat levels. However, more work can be done - like offering more fruit and vegetable options.

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