Trends in serving size, energy, and selected micronutrients for fast food restaurants in the United States, 1986-2016
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An integral part of the average American diet, fast food accounted for 4% of total caloric intake in 1977-78; in 2007-10, fast food made up 11% of daily total caloric intake. The same can be said for obesity: approximately 36% of U.S. adults 20 years and older are obese, up from around 14% in the late 1970s. These parallel trends in fast food consumption and obesity have warranted examination of trends in fast food composition, but a more recent and more expansive analysis of how fast food composition has changed is necessary. This study describes trends in serving size (g), energy (kcal), energy density (kcal/g), sodium (mg), sodium density (mg/g), calcium (% RDA), calcium density (%RDA/g), iron (%RDA), and iron density (%RDA/g) in fast food restaurants from 1986-2016 for fast foods by restaurant and by menu category. Fast food data for 1986, 1991, and 2016 were compiled from primary and secondary sources for eight restaurants: Arby’s, Burger King, Dairy Queen, Hardee’s, Jack in the Box, Long John Silver’s, McDonald’s and Wendy’s. Each food item (N=1,558) was then classified under a menu category: entrees, sides, desserts or condiments. Descriptive statistics by restaurant and by menu category were calculated to give the results as follows: median serving size, energy, sodium, sodium density, calcium, and calcium density increased by (25%, 22%, 33%, 20%, 200%, and 67%), respectively. Energy density decreased by 4%, and though iron remained consistent over time, iron density decreased by 17% from 1986 to 2016. Entrees showed the highest median sodium value each year and were consistently in the top two highest values compared to foods in the other menu categories each year. Desserts- in 1986, 1991, and 2016- showed the highest median serving size and calcium density. Each of the 8 restaurants analyzed showed an increase in the median energy and sodium of their food items, while four of eight showed an increase in energy density as well. Serving size increased for six of the eight restaurants from 1986 to 2016. The results show that widespread serving size increases influenced increases in the other variables, but examination of energy and nutrient densities helped illuminate trends of increases in energy, sodium and calcium densities and a slight decrease in iron density. Due to the associations of fast foods with concerning factors of overall health, fast food should be consumed occasionally in one’s diet. Although these results are not surprising, they highlight the need to educate and provide the resources for enabling Americans to make healthier food choices when consuming fast food. These results also support the call for fast food restaurants to offer more reasonable serving sizes and healthier options.