When it comes to fast food vs. fast casual restaurants, which one serves up more calories?

The answer, according to a recent study weighing in on the debate: fast casual places.

Even the researchers from the University of South Carolina who conducted the study were surprised to learn that the average meal at a fast-casual eatery had 200 more calories than a typical fast food meal. And there were more high-calorie menu items at fast casual establishments.

They studied thousands of entrees from more than 50 restaurants. The list included fast food staples like Burger King or Taco Bell and the increasingly popular fast casual chains such as Chipotle and Panera Bread.

The findings appeared recently in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

“We were surprised that there were higher calories at fast casual restaurants, but one of the main takeaways … is that there are a lot of high-calorie options at both kinds of restaurants,” Danielle Schoffman, the lead researcher, said in a news release.

On average, the fast-casual entrees packed about 760 calories, while the fast-food entrees contained 560 calories typically.

Schoffman noted that generally held impressions can be deceiving. For example, she said, most people likely would consider a Chinese Citrus Cashew Salad with Chicken at Panera Bread to be a lower-calorie option to a McDonald’s Big Mac. But, in fact, they have exactly the same calorie count: 540.

Calories aren’t the only criteria in selecting foods. Other measures of nutritional value — sodium content or fiber content, for example — were not used to examine the meals served. The researchers acknowledge this in their report, calling for more studies to further examine the nutritional value of food served fast.

In the meantime, they advised: “Calorie conscious consumers should consider the calorie content of entree items before purchase, regardless of restaurant type.”


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