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Calorie and Nutrient Profile of Combination Meals at U.S. Fast Food and Fast Casual Restaurants

      Introduction

      The nutrient profile of combination meals in large chain restaurants is not well understood.

      Methods

      Combination meals from 34 U.S. fast food and fast casual restaurants (lunch/dinner, n=1,113; breakfast, n=366) were identified from online menus in 2017–2018 and corresponding nutrition information for each menu item was obtained from a restaurant nutrition database (MenuStat). Three options for each combination meal were analyzed: (1) default (as advertised on menu), (2) minimum (low-calorie option), and (3) maximum (high-calorie option). In 2018, meal nutrient composition was compared with the Healthier Restaurant Meal Guidelines, and linear models examined to what extent each meal component (entrée, side, beverage) drove differences in nutrients across meal options.

      Results

      There was substantial variation across the default, minimum, and maximum options of lunch/dinner combination meals for calories (default,: 1,193 kilocalories;, minimum,: 767 kilocalories;, maximum,: 1,685 kilocalories), saturated fat (14 g, 11 g, 19 g), sodium (2,110 mg, 1,783 mg, 2,823 mg), and sugar (68 g, 10 g, 117 g). Most default meals exceeded the Healthier Restaurant Meal Guidelines for calories (97%) and sodium (99%); fewer exceeded the standards for saturated fat (50%) and total sugar (6%). Comparing the maximum and default lunch/dinner combination meals, beverages were the largest driver of differences in calories (178 kilocalories, 36% of difference) and sugar (46 g, 93% of difference), and entrées were the largest driver of differences in saturated fat (3 g, 59% of difference) and sodium (371 g, 52% of difference). Results were similar for breakfast meals.

      Conclusions

      Combination meals offered by large U.S. chain restaurants are high in calories, sodium, saturated fat, and sugar, with most default meals exceeding recommended limits for calories and sodium.
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