Liz Farrell

Study: Fast-casual meals outweigh fast-food by average of 200 calories


Sweet potato fries have added sugar in them.

Maybe that should not surprise me. But it does.

I stood with a bag of them in my hand in the frozen aisle of Publix recently and had to laugh.

Of course.

Of course!

Oatmeal cookies aren’t the “healthier cookie.”

Granola and nut bars are pretty much Snickers.

And sweet potato fries are still fries.

One of the things I love most about sweet potato fries is how I order them so proudly when given the choice between them and regular fries.

“Sweet potato, please!”

And then I look around for praise.

I made such a healthy choice just now! Where’s my certificate?

It’s all a lie. Like the first salad I ordered at Chipotle. I ate it. It was delicious. And so filling! Then I checked the calories.

One thousand, twelve hundred and thirty.

I had not chosen the steak.

I had not chosen the white rice.

I had not chosen pinto beans

I had not asked for extra anything.

Also, if I’m being honest, what I had really wanted was a cheeseburger, but I had opted instead for fast-casual Chipotle, the healthy takeout, rather than fast-food Wendys, the not-so-healthy takeout.

Joke is on me.

This is why a recent study from the University of South Carolina that was published May 11 in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics caught my eye the other day.

Researchers Danielle Schoffman and Brie Turner-McGrievy found that, on average, entrees at fast-casual restaurants — such as Panera and Chipotle — have 200 more calories in them than entrees at fast-food restaurants — like McDonald’s.

And … AND … there are more high-calorie options on the fast-casual menus than on the fast-food menus.

The study only looked at calories, by the way, and not at the nutritional value of the food, which is another study Schoffman said she hopes to do.

“Maybe there’s more fiber, potassium, magnesium (in the fast-casual choices),” she said.

Probably, right?

I’m not a nutritionist, but I know for sure it’s better to eat guacamole from Chipotle than something called a Bo-Tato Round from Bojangles, no matter what the calorie difference. The study isn’t saying to go with the lower-caloried of the two types of restaurants, just to be aware of what you’re ordering.

When it comes to healthy vs. non-healthy foods, some of us trick ourselves into thinking what we’re eating is OK.

I do it all the time. It’s hard not to.

“This said low-fat.”

“These are pretzels, not chips.”

“But it’s called a ‘personal’-pan pizza, why am I lying on this gurney? That was ONE SERVING.”

Schoffman, who recently defended her dissertation and works in family obesity prevention, said this study came about because of the confusion that exists among people who are trying to make a change in their diets.

The families she works with at USC were told to stay away from fast-food.

“They had a lot of questions as to what counted as fast food,” Schoffman said. “We weren’t sure exactly what to tell them.”

Now she knows: No matter where you eat, you need to know what you’re eating … without tricking yourself.

The problem, though, is the tricks the restaurants play.

There’s the promise of “fresh” and “locally sourced” ingredients. And there’s the aesthetics of the restaurants themselves. This LOOKS like a better choice.

It’s frustrating when we fall for it, and yet another reminder of the blinders many of us wear.

“We hope that people can look beyond advertising and the way that companies present themselves and really look at the foods themselves,” Schoffman said. “You really need to pay attention to what you’re ordering. (And) perhaps you should save half of that for tomorrow’s lunch.”

Ultimately, fast-casual and fast-food restaurants are only serving us what we want to eat.

If we don’t want 1,230 calorie salads, there’s only one way to not eat one.

Order something better.