I’ve done it myself. Ask a teenager a healthy place to eat, she’ll respond “Subway or Chipotle.” What about a less healthy place? Response: “McDonald’s or Burger King.” But do fast food restaurants that are perceived “healthier” by teens actually translate into fewer calories consumed by them?
Researchers in southern California explored that question in a new paper published in the Journal of Adolescent Health. They teamed up with the community-based group Youth, Family, School and Community Partnership in Action to recruit about 100 adolescents aged 12 to 21 years to participate in the study. Each participant made two restaurant visits, one to a McDonald’s and one to a Subway restaurant, on predesignated dates and times. They were instructed to order a meal, turn in their receipts (on-site) to a research assistant and complete a short written survey. The researchers prepared food intake surveys for each participant’s meal in order to calculate calorie intake and other nutritional information about the meal purchased.
The mean age of the participants was 16.9 years, 61 percent were males and 47 percent were Asian. The adolescents purchased 1,038 calories of food at McDonald’s, compared to 955 calories at Subway. The overall 83-calorie difference was not statistically significant. At McDonald’s, the participants purchased more grams of carbohydrates and sugars, and fewer grams of protein. There was no difference, however, in the amount of fat or saturated fat purchased at the two restaurants. The difference in price of the meals was statistically significant with the McDonald’s meal averaging $4.46 and the Subway meal averaging $6.14.
The authors conclude:
“the true measure of a healthy restaurant is whether people actually consume a healthy meal there.”
Both McDonald’s and Subway offer less calorie-dense options, but making healthier choices requires mindful, not mindless eating. After all, Jared Fogle lost 245 pounds eating Subway sandwiches and went on to become the company’s spokesperson. The Jared lunch consisted of a modest 6-inch sub (about 250 calories) and 120-calorie bag of baked potato chips. That’s fewer than 400 calories. I guess the teenagers in the study who racked up 955 calories at Subway were going for the footlongs, smeared with mayo and layered with cheese.