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Are "Fast Casual" Restaurants Just As Bad As Regular Fast Food?


Fast food is no stranger to scrutiny, but fast casual restaurants (think: Chipotle) are starting to take on some heat of their own. While fast food has long been criticized for high-calorie options, a new study from the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina found that the calorie counts of the most popular meals at fast casual restaurants exceeded calories in their fast-food counterparts by almost 200 calories per meal (760 calories vs. 561 calories).

Thing is, the study didn't review the nutritional content of the meals. Fast casual restaurants may have more popular items that contain healthy high-calorie foods, such as avocado and nuts. They may also offer more whole-grain options. These foods contain more nutrients compared to white buns and fries. So while they may be higher in calories, they're still better for you. Ultimately, a calorie isn't just a calorie.

Portion sizes are important for weight loss, but so is the satiety factor (how full you feel and for how long). If you eat more calories at a meal, but it prevents you from having a high-calorie snack or overeating at your next meal, that's a good thing. A satisfying meal means you may reduce overall caloric intake, lose weight, and eat healthier foods in the process.

The study concludes that future studies should compare nutrient density and energy content of full-size meals at restaurants, not just calorie counts. So there's no reason to choose Burger King over Chipotle. (It should also be noted that the calorie data was taken from a 2014 database, and many chains may have altered their menus for the better since then.)

Still, the health factor of these restaurants depends on what you order. Here are a few easy swaps to make better choices at fast casual restaurants:

  • At Chipotle order the guacamole and fresh tomato salsa but skip the sour cream and cheese.
  • Craving iced coffee at Panera Bread? Go for the Iced Caffe Latte instead of the Iced Caffe Mocha and save yourself 27 grams of sugar.
  • At Così, downsize your Ancient Grains bowl (with no toppings) and use the 137 calories that you save toward another delicious breakfast item.


Deborah Tagliareni MS RD

Deborah Tagliareni, a Registered Dietitian and Founder of Milestone Nutrition, received her bachelors degree from Northwestern University and Masters in Clinical Nutrition from New York University.  More →

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