Americans spend millions of dollars a year eating and drinking at fast food establishments. The coronavirus pandemic did not stop the trend. In fact, drive-thru orders surged in 2020. By December, about 44% of all off-premise orders in the industry were via drive-thru, with the volume increasing 22% compared to December 2019, according to NPD Group, a marketing research company.
Fast food is popular because it’s cheap, readily available, filling, and, well … fast. But its popularity does not guarantee that it is healthy, too. Most people who go to fast-food restaurants are aware that they are not likely to get a super healthy, or even mildly healthy, meal — and some choices are worse than others.
To identify the unhealthiest food at every major fast-food chain in the U.S., 24/7 Tempo reviewed the nutritional contents of every item on their menus. We compiled a universe of over 150 items with the most calories. We then created an index of five measures, weighted equally: calories, fat, trans fat, salt, and sugar. Only food items intended for single individuals were considered.
Many of the least healthy items on fast food menus contain nearly half of the entire daily recommended intake of calories, as per the U.S. Health Department’s dietary guidelines, and often almost the entire recommended amount for salt and sugar. The recommended amount of sodium is less than 2,300 milligrams per day, and even less for people who are younger than 14.
How much fat a person should consume in a day depends on how many calories the person needs. In a diet of about 2,000 calories a day, the American Heart Association recommends aiming for about 13 grams of saturated fat, which often comes from meat and cheese. Both are a staple in fast foods.
Many fast-food restaurants offer healthy options like salads. But the word “salad” in a menu item can be deceiving — these are 40+ salads that are worse than a slice of cheese pizza.