Is McDonalds healthier than other restaurants?


Eating at McDonald’s is far less healthy than eating at other restaurants, right? Of course it is. Everyone knows that. Well, everyone is wrong.

I used the nutrition calculator from the McDonald’s Canada website (http://www.mcdonalds.ca/en/index.aspx) and compared the nutritional information of several of their items with those from a few other restaurants. The restaurants were:

The reason I chose these restaurants is that they are popular and ubiquitous (in Canada anyway, no idea about anywhere else), and because I have never heard anyone say that they never eat at one of these places because the food is so bad for you. I have heard that about McDonald’s (and other fast food places) on numerous occasions, which is the reason for this article. In a future article, I will look at just fast food restaurants (McDonald’s, Burger King, Harvey’s, Wendy’s, etc.) to see how they compare, but for this one it’s McDonald’s vs. the roadhouses.

I looked at burgers primarily, since that’s what I suspect the vast majority of McDonald’s customers eat, but I looked at chicken sandwiches and fries as well. For McDonald’s, I chose the Big Mac and Quarter Pounder with Cheese (called the Royale with Cheese in Paris!), and for the rest I chose the closest thing to a “standard” burger that I could find (i.e. no bacon or mushrooms or extra stuff). For the chicken sandwich, I tried the most basic one available, again without cheese or bacon or whatever if possible.

Note to Facebook readers: Facebook sometimes screws up the formatting of tables when it imports my articles. You may want to click the “View Original Post” button at the bottom of the article.

Here are the results:

Burgers

Restaurant Item Calories Total fat (g) Saturated Fat (g) Carbs (g) Sodium (mg)
McDonalds Big Mac 540 29 10 44 1020
McDonalds Quarter Pounder w/ Cheese 530 28 13 41 1110
The Keg Classic Burger 1182.2 63.9 20.2 130.5 2982.9
Kelsey’s Classic Burger 690 41 12 47 960
Montana’s Sirloin Burger 770 45 20 46 1230
Jack Astor’s Classic Burger 918 46.5 12 42 865

McDonalds burgers have the fewest calories and by far the least fat. The Big Mac has the least saturated fat and the Quarter Pounder is comparable to Kelsey’s and Jack Astor’s, though a higher percentage of the fat is saturated. Other than the Keg’s monster burger (by far the worst in every category), the carbs and sodium are comparable among all of them.

 

Chicken Sandwich

Restaurant Item Calories Total fat (g) Saturated Fat (g) Carbs (g) Sodium (mg)
McDonalds McChicken 470 27 4.5 46 790
McDonalds Grilled Chicken Classic 390 11 1.5 46 810
The Keg Chipotle Chicken Sandwich 1565 90.6 11.64 152.3 2925
Kelsey’s Buffalo Chicken Sandwich 720 36 7 60 1450
Montana’s Chipotle Buffalo Chicken Sandwich 590 19 3 59 1640
Jack Astor’s Chicken Club Sandwich 863 53 5.7 67 1422

I couldn’t find a standard chicken sandwich at most of these places. It’s highly possible that the chipotle / buffalo sauce on some of the sandwiches is to blame for the extra calories and fat, though the McChicken has a tartar-like sauce on it as well. Jack Astor’s didn’t say anything about the sauce, but the “club” implies that it has bacon, which none of the others have.

As a result of the sandwich differences, the comparisons here may be less meaningful, but the McDonalds sandwiches have the least calories, carbs, and sodium. Other than the Montana’s sandwich, they also have the least fat and saturated fat. Once again, The Keg’s sandwich is far and away the worst.

Fries

Restaurant Item Calories Total fat (g) Saturated Fat (g) Carbs (g) Sodium (mg)
McDonalds Large 560 27 3.5 74 430
The Keg Keg Fries 312.9 10.9 2.7 47 684.2
Kelsey’s Sweet Potato Fries 710 38 4.5 86 630
Montana’s Fries 400 22 2 47 1060
Jack Astor’s Fries (10 oz) 680 40 6 78 1278

Finally a category where the Keg doesn’t come in last. McDonalds fries sit smack in the middle in terms of calories, fat, and carbs, though they are surprisingly low in sodium. I couldn’t find standard fries on the Kelsey’s list.

Overall Results

Though it’s one of my favourite restaurants, The Keg comes up as the big loser here. A burger at the Keg is roughly equivalent to two Big Macs in terms of calories and fat, and three Big Macs in terms of carbs and sodium. Notable stats for the burger and fries combo:

  • Lowest calories: Quarter Pounder with Cheese. Second: Big Mac.
  • Lowest fat: Quarter Pounder with Cheese. Second: Big Mac.
  • Lowest saturated fat: Big Mac. Second: Quarter Pounder with Cheese.
  • Lowest carbs: Montana’s Sirloin burger. Second: Quarter Pounder with Cheese.
  • Lowest sodium: Big Mac. Second: Quarter Pounder with Cheese.

Now, there will be people who read this who think I’m saying that McDonalds makes the healthiest burger available. To those people I say read it again. I never said anything of the sort. All I said is that the McDonalds burgers are the healthiest of the ones I looked at. This is like saying compared to a Lamborghini and a Ferrari, a $100,000 Corvette is really cheap.

The take-home message from all of this is that portion sizes matter. A Quarter Pounder contains (I’m making an assumption here) a quarter pound of beef, or 4 ounces. A Big Mac has two smaller patties that add up to about the same. Is the Keg Classic Burger more than 4 oz? Almost certainly. But you don’t go to McDonalds and order two Big Macs for dinner to make sure you’re getting the same amount of food as you’d get at The Keg. At either restaurant, you generally order one burger, one order of fries, and a drink. The drinks are likely to be exactly the same so I ignored those. Also remember the bread you eat while waiting for your meal at the Keg, and the fact that you are more likely to order an appetizer and dessert at the Keg than McDonalds. So the issue is less about how healthy the food is vs. how much of it there is. I have certainly walked out of the Keg feeling completely stuffed after a meal more often than I have at McDonald’s.

There is also the possibility that because McDonald’s portion sizes are smaller, you are more likely to snack later on after eating at McDonalds than you are at the Keg. This may be true, but if you’re comparing the burger-and-fries meals we talked about before, you can eat at McDonald’s and then have a 395 calorie snack later on and still be below what your Keg meal would have been. Even if your snack is another Big Mac, you are only 145 calories and 10 grams of fat worse off, and and you’re still 15 grams of carbs and 1200 mg of sodium lower than the Keg meal.

While researching this, I was asked if I had seen the documentary film Super Size Me, in which a healthy guy eats every meal at McDonald’s for 30 days and ends up gaining a lot of weight and being generally less healthy. I have not seen it, but I know that the filmmaker (don’t call him a “scientist”, this was hardly a scientific experiment) forced himself to eat every bite of every meal, super-sized whenever the option was offered, and ate an average of 5,000 calories a day. Eating 5,000 calories a day is unhealthy and will cause weight gain regardless of what it is you’re eating, or where. A nutritionist did a similar experiment with university students (and made a film himself, called “Portion Size Me”) but didn’t force them to overeat and after 30 days on fast food, they all lost weight and their cholesterol levels dropped.

You need to take this information for what it is. I am not saying that McDonalds is an overall healthy choice. If you’re going out for dinner and are interested in a truly healthy meal, McDonalds is not where you want to go. But if you skip McDonalds because “it’s so unhealthy” and get a burger at the Keg instead, you’re misleading yourself.

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