Burrito bowl vs. burger: Research finds fast-casual meals to be caloric heavy-hitters

“We were surprised that there were higher calories at fast casual restaurants, but one of the main takeaways from the paper is that there are a lot of high-calorie options at both kinds of restaurants,” said Danielle Schoffman, the study’s lead researcher. (Image via Albumarium)

“We were surprised that there were higher calories at fast casual restaurants, but one of the main takeaways from the paper is that there are a lot of high-calorie options at both kinds of restaurants,” said Danielle Schoffman, the study’s lead researcher. (Image via Albumarium)

A burrito bowl or artisan sandwich might look healthy, but they could be higher in calories than a cheeseburger or some fried chicken, according to a new University of South Carolina study.

Researchers at the Arnold School of Public Health looked at whether the calorie content in meal entrees differed between fast-casual restaurants like Chipotle and Panera Bread Co. and fast-food spots like McDonalds, Burger King and KFC.

What they found was a greater number of calories in food options at fast casual dining options, which often are defined by their lack of table service in exchange for a focus on little to no processed food.

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

Schoffman said the study was inspired by her doctorate dissertation, which focused on using mobile technology to encourage healthy eating and physical activity for families. The families she spoke to questioned if places like Chipotle and Panera were “health food” options.

The growth in fast-casual restaurants has been rapid over the past few years. Consumers spent about $30 billion at these restaurants in 2014, according to industry reports.

Consumers generally perceive these places as healthy options over the typical fast-food places, Schoffman said, particularly when they market organic, vegan and locally-sourced choices.

“There really wasn’t any data” to back up consumer’s assumptions that fast-casual establishments are inherently healthier, she said.

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Lightsey Jett, a dietitian with Palmetto Health Orthopedics, says the following tips can help you pick healthy options while dining out:

Portion control: Share a meal with a friend or take part of it home.

Avoid extraneous fats: Baked and grilled options are better than fried.

Beverages are huge: “One 32-ounce drink with a meal, that’s like having another meal,” Jett said. “Have a big drink of water.”

Game plan: Don’t order on a whim; plan your dining experience before going out.

Slow down: Be mindful of how quickly you are eating.

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Calorie data was reviewed for lunch and dinner entrees at 28 fast-casual and 34 fast-food restaurants. Schoffman said breakfast was left out of the study because that meal typically has a much lower caloric count.

Fast-casual meals averaged about 760 calories per entree compared with fast-food, which contained an average of 561 calories.

Schoffman said individuals can avoid higher-calorie choices just by studying the nutritional information of menu items posted at restaurants.

“It comes down to us as consumers making informed decisions using this type of data to change that,” she said.

Lightsey Jett, a dietitian with Palmetto Health Orthopedics, said knowing the source of where the calories come from — fats, carbs, protein — is just as important as the number of calories and can make a difference for those wanting to lose weight.

“Calories definitely do matter,” she said. “But I think it also depends on medical history. If you are a diabetic or if you have renal failure, you have to know where your macronutrients come from.”

The study, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, was limited to a measure of caloric content. USC researchers suggest further study of the nutritional value of food items at fast-casual restaurants, which might yield a more positive result.

“A burger on a white bun may have fewer calories, but when you’re talking about cancer prevention or other chronic diseases, you have to look beyond calories,” said researcher Brie Turner-McGrievy. “We don’t want the message to be, ‘Go eat hamburgers and don’t eat guacamole and beans and brown rice.’”

Have a comment about this story or an idea for a story you’d like to see? E-mail Kelly Petty at kelly@coladaily.com.

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