If you hold up your nose as you drive by McDonald's and Taco Bell on your way to Shake Shack or Panera, you may be under the impression that your dining choice is fresher, healthier, or otherwise superior to its fast-food counterparts. But the joke is on you, fast-casual food snob: when it comes to counting calories, fast-casual restaurants pile them on even more than fast-food restaurants do.
A new study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics surveyed 3,193 entrees at 34 fast-food and 28 fast-casual restaurants and found that fast-casual entrees, on the whole, contain way more calories than those at fast-food restaurants. The average meal at a place like Chipotle contains a whopping 760 calories, while an average meal at a fast-food restaurant consisted of 561 calories. "Locally sourced" doesn't always equal "healthy"—so maybe loading up on all the farm-sourced freebees at the burrito bar isn't the best move.
Nevertheless, the perception persists, and customers often think that fast-casual restaurants offer healthier alternatives to their fast-food cousins. Knowing this, fast-food restaurants often get creative with how they brand themselves to avoid being labeled "fast food."
"When we encourage participants in our research studies to reduce their fast-food intake, they often ask if these fast-casual restaurants also 'count,'" said Danielle Schoffman, the study's lead researcher at the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.
The study didn't compare other nutritional values, but Schoffman says that some healthy ingredients, like brown rice or vegetables, are sometimes served in such huge amounts at fast-casual restaurants that it would be unreasonable for an adult to finish them in one sitting.
A dietitian speaking to Reuters, Melissa Rifkin, argues that you're still better off eating at a fast-casual restaurant than a fast-food restaurant, but diners should eat in moderation. "As shown in this study, fast-casual foods are more calorically dense, the reason being is they are often larger in size than fast-food portion sizes," Rifkin said. "When it comes to nutrient breakdown, your best option is to go with the fast-casual foods; however, don't be fooled that they're necessarily better for you when it comes to calorie load."
Ultimately, she says something relatively healthy from a fast-casual restaurant is better for you than, say, a KFC Double Down, even if it contains more calories.
But it is still surprising to many consumers that a supposedly healthy meal can contain so many calories, though neither category of fast restaurants is off the hook. If you're looking for a really healthy option, you're probably best off avoiding any type of fast food altogether, whether it's a Whopper burrito or a sad iceberg-lettuce salad.
"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 Schoffman.
Basically, if your restaurant is a megachain where your meal is given to you in a paper bag, you might want to think twice about what's inside—whether there's a drive-thru window or not.