Nutritionally bankrupt fast food is in trouble, and companies know it. McDonald’s has felt it, to the tune of at least two years of sales in the United States. In fact, the company had its first sales rebound in months last fall, following a multiyear tumble that included the replacement of its CEO in early 2015.
McDonald’s responded not just with the addition of all-day breakfast. The company is trying to completely reframe the way we think about it. Representatives have said they want its more than 70 million customers to think of the chain as a “modern, progressive burger company” instead of the classic Happy Meal joint. And industry-wide, the term “fast food” is being scrapped in favor of terms like “fast casual,” “fine casual,” “quick service,” and even “fan food.”
Countless books, documentaries, and news headlines have equated “fast food” with a lack of nutrition, and companies’ branding experts know this. They know that many more Americans do not equate “fast” with “quality,” and are willing to wait a little bit longer for a sandwich or soup they know was made fresh, with fresh ingredients.
The success of these efforts lies in the stories of smaller quick-service restaurants like Chipotle and Shake Shack, which have capitalized on this changing market with meals made from scratch from better-for-you ingredients. These chains also advertise sustainably sourced meats and produce, another demand that McDonald’s and the other fast food franchises have yet to mirror.
Don’t be fooled: organic, grass-fed burgers and french fries are still junk food. The connection between the sugar-laden, fatty foods often found on extra-value menus and health conditions like diabetes, obesity, and heart problems is well documented. We also know fast food restaurants target groups most susceptible to the allure of convenient, cheap food: children and teenagers in low-income communities. Incidentally, these communities are also most at risk of diet-related diseases.
But we also know that any meal out—whether it’s at a large chain or a mom-and-pop shop—is likely to inflict damage. A Tufts study released this week found that a staggering 92 percent of restaurants serve meals that exceed healthy portion and calorie requirements.
“These findings make it clear that making healthy choices while eating out is difficult because the combination of tempting options and excessive portions often overwhelm our self-control,” said senior author Susan B. Roberts, Ph.D., director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts.
“Although fast-food restaurants are often the easiest targets for criticism because they provide information on their portion sizes and calories, small restaurants typically provide just as many calories, and sometimes more,” Roberts continued.
The solution is simple: Cook more of your own food, using the freshest, cleanest ingredients. It’ll take longer than fast food or "fine casual,” but you’ll feel so much better afterward.
Oh, and don’t fall for junk food’s dishonest marketing wordplay.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho