(Photo: Reuters / Larry Downing)
According to a new study released this week, Americans now have a top 10 list of “The Most Unhealthy Meals Served by America’s Fast Food Chains," which could help us avoid the worst of the worst.
The new list may shock some people as it contains some of our favorite fast food menu items including specialty pizzas, juicy hamburgers and potpies.
The fast food items made it to the top of the list this year after an in-depth consumer study conducted by the analytical group, 24/7 Wall Street.
Analysts say "Junk" foods, or processed, low-nutrient foods, are still a significant part of the American diet.
French fries, mainly purchased from fast food restaurants, are still on the rise and Americans consumed an average of 152 pounds of added sugars in just one year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Since junk food is often high in unhealthy fats, sugar, sodium and/or calories, gaining an understanding of what draws Americans to it may motivate some to maintain healthier dietary behaviors, food experts said.
Eating healthier diets could prevent at least $71 billion per year in medical costs, lost productivity, and lost lives, according to the U.S. Department of Health.
Obesity alone is estimated to cost $117 billion, and osteoporosis costs $14 billion in medical expenses.
Although fast food chains are now offering a lot of “healthy food” options, some food experts say they may not be better for you.
Nutritionists say fast food outlets would be better off reformulating their entire menus, making small changes in salt and fat content and adding more vegetables rather than just offering some token healthier alternatives.
"Fast food restaurants are legitimately concerned about negative publicity,” said Charles Areni, an academic professor at the University of Sydney.
“It’s a public relations move to say, 'We're doing something about healthy food options', but what they may inadvertently be doing is making things worse."
He says research from Duke University found a person can feel they've met a health goal by taking a small action such as considering a salad without actually ordering it.
"It's a social necessity to offer a healthier option these days," he said.
Lola Berry, nutritionist and author of the recently released book Inspiring Ingredients, says it's becoming trendy to be healthy and fast food outlets are giving consumers what they want – healthier options.
"If it means people who would always eat fast food having a salad meal instead of a burger and chips, then it's a positive step, but it's scary to think that some of the healthier options, if you go through them with a fine-tooth comb, aren't necessarily all that much healthier," Berry said.
Many trends in society helped create the modern fast food industry and are still helping fuel its growth.
Many children, especially racial minorities, live in single-parent households – a whopping 65 percent of non-Hispanic black children and 37 percent of Hispanic children as of 2007, according to Kids Count.
Mothers are working outside the home at much higher rates than in years past. It is projected that women will account for 46.9 percent of the labor force in 2018, up from 46.8 percent today.
Add to this mix, high unemployment rates caused by the uncertainty of the worldwide economy, and the allure of fast, cheap food becomes hard to resist.
A hectic daily schedule may make it difficult to plan, prepare and sit down to a healthy meal, according to a report published in the "Journal of the American Dietetic Association."
The report also revealed that more than 92 percent of surveyed adolescents and adults claimed they eat fast food because it is "quick," and 80 percent because the food is "easy to get to."
The same may be said for grabbing a bag of potato chips or a candy bar at a convenience store. If these factors motivate you to consume more "junk" than healthy fare, health officials say consider setting aside time one day each week to purchase and prepare healthy foods, such as fresh-cut vegetables, fruit and baked chicken breasts you can incorporate into your meals throughout the week.
Packing a healthy lunch the evening before a hectic day may also help.
In order to create the top 10 list, 24/7 Wall Street examined the menus of the top restaurant brands in the quick service category by sales as determined by QSR, an industry publication, looking for items that were the highest in calories, carbohydrates, sodium and saturated fat.
Analysts then ranked them against the nutritional guidelines issued by the USDA.
Food experts also took the average nutritional ratings of menu items compared with the USDA recommendations. Carbohydrates, saturated fat, and sodium were given the most weight. Calories and protein were also considered.
Here is the list of “The Most Unhealthy Meals Served by America’s Fast Food Chains:"
1. Pizza Hut Triple Meat Italiano
• Calories: 1280
• Saturated Fat: 23g
• Carbohydrate (pct. daily diet): 123 (38 percent)
• Sodium (pct. daily diet): 3070mg (133 percent)
(Pizza – plain with cheese and sauce – is not particularly unhealthy. This menu item contains "all-natural pepperoni, all-natural Italian sausage, and baked ham." Pizza Hut offers plenty of healthier choices.)
2. Subway 12" Italian B.M.T.
• Calories: 900
• Saturated Fat: 16g
• Carbohydrate (pct. daily diet): 94 (27 percent)
• Sodium (pct. daily diet): 3000 mg (130 percent)
(It's easy to see why Subway does not list this sandwich under its "low fat footlongs" on its website. It has a whopping 3,000 mg of salt, 130 percent of the recommended allotment in a daily diet. "The problem with Subway is the portion size" and the problem with this sandwich is the salty luncheon meats. Subway is getting the message about salt. As an April USA Today article noted, "Beginning today, sodium content in Subway's 'Fresh Fit' sandwich line in the U.S. will be cut 28 percent vs. 2009, when Subway first began to cut salt. And sodium in its overall sandwich line will be cut by 15 percent, compared with the same period.")
3. Taco Bell XL Grilled Stuft Beef Burrito
• Calories: 880
• Saturated Fat: 3g
• Carbohydrate (pct. daily diet): 94 (26 percent)
• Sodium (pct. daily diet): 2130mg (93 percent)
(Taco Bell has mastered the art of blending meats and cheese in ever-creative caloric combinations. Taco Bell calls it its "biggest burrito yet." It has "a blend of three cheeses – cheddar, pepper jack and mozzarella – flavorful seasoned rice, hearty beans, reduced-fat sour cream, chunky guacamole, avocado ranch and fiesta salsa, wrapped up in a warm flour tortilla." Taco Bell's sales have been hurt by the publicity surrounding the quality of its beef.)
4. KFC Chicken Pot Pie
• Calories: 790
• Saturated Fat: 28g
• Carbohydrate (pct. daily diet): 43 (12 percent)
• Sodium (pct. daily diet): 1970mg (86 percent)
(Salty and high in calories, there is little positive that can be said about the KFC Chicken Pot Pie. A Yum! Brands spokesman had this to say: "It's all about providing our consumers with choices, and each of our brands has introduced products that are lower in calories and fat, such as KFC's Kentucky Grilled Chicken.)
5. McDonald's Angus Chipotle BBQ Bacon
• Calories: 800
• Saturated Fat: 37g
• Carbohydrate (pct. daily diet): 66 (18 percent)
• Sodium (pct. daily diet): 2020mg (88 percent)
(The Angus Chipotle is big and has bacon, two red flags for any dieter. The Golden Arches have borne the brunt of negative publicity about fast food. That's unfair, analysts said. They did find that McDonald's did have more healthy options" than other chains.)
6. Sonic SuperSONIC Bacon Double Cheeseburger
• Calories: 1370
• Saturated Fat: 14g
• Carbohydrate (pct. daily diet): 95 (27 percent)
• Sodium (pct. daily diet): 1610mg (70 percent)
(The name alone should think. Those brave enough to chow down on this 1,370-calorie monstrosity probably shouldn't eat much for the rest of the day. Once a regional operator in the South and Midwest, Sonic (Nasdaq: SONC - News) now operates in over 3,500 locations.)
7. Wendy's Triple
• Calories: 1030
• Saturated Fat: 18g
• Carbohydrate (pct. daily diet): 66 (18 percent)
• Sodium (pct. daily diet): 1800mg (78 percent)
(Anyone eating this monstrosity might not realize that the USDA recommends that people eat a portion of meat roughly the size of deck of cards. This Wendy's monster burger clocks in at a whopping 423 grams.)
8. Subway Footlong Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki
• Calories: 750
• Saturated Fat: 2.5g
• Carbohydrate (pct. daily diet): 117 (41 percent)
• Sodium (pct. daily diet): 1810 mg (79 percent)
(Subway unhealthy? In some cases, the answer is "yes." While this sandwich is low in calories and fat, it is high in salt. The portions of Subway's footlong sandwiches are too large.)
9. Wendy's Baconator Double
• Calories: 930
• Saturated Fat: 34g
• Carbohydrate (pct. daily diet): 55 (15 percent)
• Sodium (pct. daily diet): 1840mg (80 percent)
(Who says you can never have too much bacon? Anyone with sense, that's who.)
10. Burger King Triple Whopper with Cheese
• Calories: 1140
• Saturated Fat: 25g
• Carbohydrate (pct. daily diet): 41 (11 percent)
• Sodium (pct. daily diet): 110mg (5 percent)
(The Triple Whopper makes the Quarter Pounder with Cheese seem like health food. At 1,140 calories, it packs more than twice the punch of the McDonald's burger, which has 535 calories.)