4 Troubling Ways Fast Food Has Changed in 30 Years

©. studiostocks

No wonder the United States has such a problem with obesity and chronic disease.

On any given day, 37 percent of American adults eat fast food. For those between 20 and 39 years old, the number goes up to 45 percent – meaning that almost half of younger adults are eating fast food daily.

Meanwhile, the CDC reveals that obesity among American adults continues to rise. The latest numbers show that 39.8 percent (about 93.3 million) of US adults are considered obese. Obesity-related conditions include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer that are some of the leading causes of preventable, premature death.

Is there a connection between fast food and rising rates of obesity? New research looking at how fast food has changed over the last three decades may shed some light on the question. Despite the fact that fast food restaurants have added healthier items, overall fast food is more unhealthy than it was three decades ago, the researchers found.

"Our study offers some insights on how fast food may be helping to fuel the continuing problem of obesity and related chronic conditions in the United States. Despite the vast number of choices offered at fast-food restaurants, some of which are healthier than others, the calories, portion sizes, and sodium content overall have worsened (increased) over time and remain high," said lead investigator Megan A. McCrory, PhD, Department of Health Sciences, Sargent College, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts.

The team looked at the nutritional data for 10 of the most popular fast-food restaurants for the years 1986, 1991, and 2016, focussing on entrees, sides, and desserts. Here are some of the conclusions.

From 1986 to 2016:

• Total number of entrees, desserts, and sides increased by 226 percent. (Translation: More options to consistently entice potential customers.)

• Calories increased in all three categories: Entrees went up by 90 calories; sides went up by 42 calories; desserts went up by 186 calories.

• Portion size increased in two categories: Entrees went up by 39 grams; desserts went up by 72 grams.

• Sodium increased in all three categories: Entrees went up 13.8 percent of the daily value; sides went up 11.7 percent of the daily value; and even desserts went up 3.6 percent of the daily value.

When they looked at total calories, they found that a meal including an entree and side provides an average of 767 calories, nearly 40 percent of a 2,000-calorie a day diet. Top that off with a soda, and the amount increases to 45 to 50 percent of a person's daily calorie intake.

fast food

Megan A. McCrory, PhD, Department of Health Sciences, Boston University, February 2019/CC BY 2.0

The authors conclude that "Given the popularity of fast food, our study highlights one of the changes in our food environment that is likely part of the reason for the increase in obesity and related chronic conditions over the past several decades, which are now among the main causes of death in the US."

The CDC estimates that the annual medical cost of obesity in the United States is $147 billion (in 2008 US dollars) – meaning money and an incredible amount of natural resources are spent on something that is largely modifiable.

McCrory hopes that the study's findings might heighten awareness about the problem and may lead to some solutions.

"We need to find better ways to help people consume fewer calories and sodium at fast-food restaurants. The requirement that chain restaurants display calories on their menus is a start. We would like to see more changes, such as restaurants offering smaller portions at a proportional prices," she adds.