Adolescents are just as likely to consume too many calories at Subway, which they considered a healthy dining option, as at McDonald’s, a new UCLA study has revealed.
Meals from both restaurants are likely to contribute toward overeating and obesity, according to the researchers.
Adolescents purchase about 1,000 calories worth of food for an afternoon meal at both fast food restaurants—150 calories more per meal than the Institute of Medicine recommends for this age group.
The Institute of Medicine recommends that school lunches not exceed 850 calories. An adolescent should consume an average of about 2,400 calories in a day.
“We were interested in looking at how the restaurant marketing environment affects what adolescents purchase,” said Lenard Lesser, M.D., the study’s lead author and a family physician and researcher at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation Research Institute.
Lesser and his colleagues asked adolescents where they would go for an unhealthy meal and for a healthy meal.
“When we asked them where they would go for a healthy meal, most of them said Subway,” Lesser said.
The study enrolled 97 adolescents ages 12 to 21 to purchase meals at both restaurants on different days in the South Los Angeles area. They purchased an average of 1,038 calories from McDonald’s and 955 calories from Subway, which researchers found to not be a significant difference.
Nutritionally, the meals purchased from McDonald’s differed somewhat from Subway meals. The adolescents purchased more calories from sugary drinks and French fries and fewer cups of vegetables from McDonald’s.
The McDonald’s meals contained more grams of carbohydrates and sugars than the Subway meals. However, overall sodium amounts were greater in the Subway meals, probably due to more processed meats and breads, Lesser said.
There was no significant difference in fat content between meals from the two restaurants. The study authors stated that while Subway “may be ‘healthier’, it still may not be healthy.
"The nutrient profile at Subway was slightly healthier, but the food still contained three times the amount of salt that the Institute of Medicine recommends," Lesser said.
The researchers suggested that the higher sodium content of the Subway meals likely came from the restaurant's processed meats. Processed meats in general are associated with obesity, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
The researchers noted some weaknesses in the study. They did not track the subjects' meals for the rest of the day, so it was unclear whether participants ate less at other times of the day to compensate for the excess calories. Also, participants were from a single suburb of Los Angeles and most were of Asian descent or of mixed race and ethnicity, so their purchase patterns may not be applicable to other populations.
Lesser recommends that McDonald's customers eliminate sugary drinks and french fries from their meals.
"And if you go to Subway, opt for smaller subs, and ask for less meat and double the amount of veggies," he said.
The finding was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.