Fast food was healthier 30 years ago
Portion sizes, calories, and sodium levels have steadily crept up since the 1980s

By Sarah Wells
Since they first started popping up across America in the 1950s, fast food restaurants have drastically changed food culture. A meal once made slowly has now been pushed to the peak of efficiency and can be eaten on-demand 24/7. While this easy access to food has its benefits — cost effectiveness, and time savings, to name a few — its popularity has upped our nation’s consumption of low-nutrient and high-calorie meals.
Today, fast food makes up 11 percent of adult energy intake in the United States and has been implicated in rising rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. A new study looking at fast food’s evolution over the past 30 years could help explain why these health issues have become more common. In a paper published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, researchers from Boston University and Tufts University report that meals have packed on more calories and salt over the years.
It’s the longest-spanning and most in-depth look at fast food’s caloric energy and nutrient makeup, decade over decade, that has ever been conducted, according to Megan McCrory, research associate professor at BU’s College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences: Sargent College and the lead author on the paper.
A look at ten restaurantsThe researchers looked at menu items from ten different fast food restaurants, including crowd favorites like McDonald’s, Dairy Queen, and KFC. Using three specific years (1986, 1991, and 2016) as snapshots, they calculated how portion size, energy content, and nutrient profiles have changed over the three decades.
Menus — Between 1986 and 2016, the number of items on restaurant menus grew a staggering 226 percent, an average of 22.9 items per year. Researchers also found that portion sizes and calories had increased as well.
Sugar — Desserts grew by an average of 62 calories per decade—just under 200 calories over the 30-year span. Meanwhile, entrées gained an average of 30 calories per decade, nearly 100 calories overall. Sides did not increase by much in terms of calories, but like entrées and desserts, became noticeably saltier.
Salt — Fast food’s sodium content—too much of which can increase blood pressure and risk of heart disease—has consistently grown higher over the years. Based on a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet, fast food has steadily undergone an increase in the percentage of recommended daily values of sodium, creeping up 4.6 percent for entrées, 3.9 percent for sides, and 1.2 percent for desserts on average each decade.
Calcium and iron — Calcium and iron, which can increase bone density and reduce anemia, have also increased in fast food items over time, primarily in desserts. On average per decade, the daily value of calcium increased 3.9 percent in desserts and the daily value of iron increased 1.4 percent. Yet that news shouldn’t be viewed as a green light to splurge on more fast food.
“Although these increases seem desirable, people should not be consuming fast food to get more calcium and iron in their diet because of the high calories and sodium that come along with it,” McCrory says.
The research was funded in part by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Source: Boston University: