From California, to the New York island; from the redwood forest, to the Gulf Stream waters, this land is filled with fatties, lard butts and people large enough to have their own gravitational fields. Yes, America is the land of the "large and in charge," and one of the main reasons for it is our love of fast food.
Though it's tempting to put all of the blame for America's obesity crisis on the fast-food industry -- and experts say they're at least partly at fault -- it's important to view it in context. The industry came of age during the 1950s, as suburban communities saw their populations skyrocket and social mores began changing as women began to increasingly work outside the home. Some of the savviest entrepreneurs in American corporate history sprang into action.
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McDonald's Corp. (NYSE: MCD - News) started the trend in 1955 when businessman Ray Kroc wondered how the McDonald Brothers sold so many burgers at their Southern California burger joint. He opened his first McDonald's Drive-In in Des Plaines, Ill. There are now more than 32,000 restaurants that are home to the Golden Arches. Col. Harlan Sanders began franchising Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1952. Five years later, Sanders began selling chicken in the signature buckets, and today there are more than 15,000 KFC outlets. James McLamore and David Edgerton founded Burger King in 1954, when, as the company's website notes, "flame-broiled beef begins fulfilling its destiny." There are more than 12,500 Burger Kings today. Glen W. Bell Jr. opened the first Taco Bell in 1962 with an investment of $4,000 and eventually sold the chain to PepsiCo Inc. (NYSE: PEP - News) in 1978. At that time, there were 868 Taco Bells. Today, there are nearly 6,000. At the tender age of 17, Fred DeLuca co-founded Subway Restaurants in 1965. They have 32,800 locations today.
Fast-forward to the beginning of the of the 21st century, and many of the same trends that helped create the modern fast food industry are still helping fuel its growth. Many children, especially racial minorities, live in single-parent households -- a whopping 65 percent of non-Hispanic black children and 37 percent of Hispanic children as of 2007, according to Kids Count. Mothers are working outside the home at much higher rates than years past. Women comprised 46.8 percent of the total U.S. labor force in 2009 and are projected to account for 46.9 percent of the labor force in 2018, accounting for 51.2 percent of the increase in total labor force growth during the same period. Add to this mix high unemployment rates caused by the uncertainty of the worldwide economy, and the allure of fast, cheap food becomes hard to resist.
And therein lies the problem.
Obesity rates are a public health crisis. They have tripled among children since 1980. In 2009, only Colorado and the District of Columbia had a prevalence of obesity less than 20 percent, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. People who are obese are vulnerable to everything from diabetes to heart disease, resulting in some $147 billion in direct medical costs annually.
Determining how much fast food is at fault for the poor state of the health of many Americans "is impossible to quantify, but is definitely a factor," says Christina Munsell, research assistant at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University, in an interview. The increase in obesity "definitely would correlate with eating quicker meals that are easier to obtain."
In order to create the rankings, 24/7 Wall St. examined the menus of the top 10 restaurant brands in the quick service category by sales as determined by QSR, an industry publication, looking for items that were the highest in calories, carbohydrates, sodium and saturated fat. We then ranked them against the nutritional guidelines of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
A couple of important caveats to consider: Not all food sold at fast food restaurants is unhealthy. The industry aggressively promotes healthier choices on their menus. Subway, for one, makes a special point of doing this, even though its footlong subs are not healthy choices. Moreover, experts point out that some items sold at sit-down restaurants are actually much more unhealthy than many fast food items. Fast food, though, has gained ground during the economic slowdown, while casual and fine dining chains have suffered. McDonald's alone earned $24.58 billion in revenue in 2010. Yum Brands! Inc. (NYSE: YUM - News), parent of KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, made $11.42 billion.
Methodology: We derived the rankings by taking the average nutritional ratings of menu items compared with USDA recommendations. Carbohydrates, saturated fat, and sodium were given the most weight. Calories and protein were also considered.
1. Pizza Hut Triple Meat Italiano
• Calories (pct. daily diet): 1280 (49%)
• Saturated Fat: 23g
• Carbohydrate (pct. daily diet): 123 (38%)
• Sodium (pct. daily diet): 3,070mg (133%)
Pizza -- plain with cheese and sauce -- is not particularly unhealthy. This gastronomical overkill featuring "all-natural pepperoni, all-natural Italian sausage and baked ham" is terrible. Pizza Hut offers plenty of healthier choices.
2. Subway 12" Italian B.M.T
• Calories (pct. daily diet): 900 (35%)
• Saturated Fat: 16g
• Carbohydrate (pct. daily diet): 94 (27%)
• Sodium (pct. daily diet): 3,000 mg (130%)
It's easy to see why Subway does not list this sandwich under its "low fat footlongs" on its website. It has a whopping 3,000 mg of salt, 130% of the recommended allotment in a daily diet. "The problem with Subway is the portion size," Munsell says, adding that the problem with this sandwich is the salty luncheon meats. Subway is getting the message about salt. As an April USA Today article noted, "Beginning today, sodium content in Subway's 'Fresh Fit' sandwich line in the U.S. will be cut 28% vs. 2009, when Subway first began to cut salt. And sodium in its overall sandwich line will be cut by 15%, compared with the same period."
3. KFC Chicken Pot Pie
• Calories (pct. daily diet): 790 (30%)
• Saturated Fat: 37g
• Carbohydrate (pct. daily diet): 66 (20%)
• Sodium (pct. daily diet): 1,970mg (86%)
Salty and high in calories, there is little positive that can be said about the KFC Chicken Pot Pie. A Yum! Brands spokesman had this to say: "It's all about providing our consumers with choices, and each of our brands has introduced products that are lower in calories and fat, such as KFC's Kentucky Grilled Chicken, Pizza Hut's Thin 'N Crispy Pizzas and salads and Taco Bell's Drive Thru Diet Menu with seven items less than 9 grams of fat."
In other words, diners have a choice whether they eat something with almost a full day's allotment of sodium in one sitting.
4. Sonic SuperSONIC Bacon Double Cheeseburger with Mayo
• Calories (pct. daily diet): 1,370 (53%)
• Saturated Fat: 36g
• Carbohydrate (pct. daily diet): 55 (17%)
• Sodium (pct. daily diet): 1,610mg (70%)
The name alone should make a diner want to grab a fistful of Lipitor. Those brave enough to chow down on this 1,370-calorie monstrosity probably shouldn't eat much for the rest of the day. Once a regional operator in the South and Midwest, Sonic (Nasdaq: SONC - News) now operates in over 3,500 locations.
5. McDonald's Angus Chipotle BBQ Bacon
• Calories (pct. daily diet): 800 (31%)
• Saturated Fat: 18g
• Carbohydrate (pct. daily diet): 66 (18%)
• Sodium (pct. daily diet): 2,020mg (88%)
The Angus Chipotle is big and has bacon, two red flags for any dieter. "It's problematic," says Munsell, adding that the Golden Arches have borne the brunt of negative publicity about fast food. That's unfair. "We did find that McDonald's did have more healthy options" than other chains, she adds. Indeed, it ended its Super Size promotion a few years ago, no doubt spurred by the publicity surrounding the movie "Super Size Me."
6. Taco Bell XXL Grilled Stuft Beef Burrito
• Calories (pct. daily diet): 880 (34%)
• Saturated Fat: 3g
• Carbohydrate (pct. daily diet): 94 (26%)
• Sodium (pct. daily diet): 2,130mg (93%)
Taco Bell has mastered the art of blending meats and cheese in ever-creative caloric combinations. The XXL Grilled Stuft Beef Burrito is a monument to gluttony. Taco Bell calls it its "biggest burrito yet." It has "a blend of three cheeses -- cheddar, pepper jack and mozzarella -- flavorful seasoned rice, hearty beans, reduced-fat sour cream, chunky guacamole, avocado ranch and fiesta salsa, wrapped up in a warm flour tortilla." Taco Bell's sales have been hurt by the publicity surrounding the quality of its beef.
7. Wendy's Triple
• Calories (pct. daily diet): 1,030 (40%)
• Saturated Fat: 28g
• Carbohydrate (pct. daily diet): 43 (18%)
• Sodium (pct. daily diet): 1,800mg (78%)
Anyone eating this monstrosity might not realize that the USDA recommends that people eat a portion of meat roughly the size of deck of cards. This Wendy's monster burger clocks in at a whopping 423 grams. Wendy's (NYSE: WEN - News) has struggled for years against larger rivals. It unloaded its underperforming Arby's chain earlier this week to private-equity group Roark Capital Group. Wendy's did not respond to a request for comment.
8. Subway Footlong Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki
• Calories (pct. daily diet): 750 (28%)
• Saturated Fat: 2.5g
• Carbohydrate (pct. daily diet): 117 (41%)
• Sodium (pct. daily diet): 1,810 mg (79%)
Subway unhealthy? In some cases, the answer is "yes." While this sandwich is low in calories and fat, it is high in salt. The portions of Subway's footlong sandwiches are too large, Munsell notes. Subway did not respond to a request for comment.
9. Burger King Triple Whopper with Cheese
• Calories (pct. daily diet): 1,180 (44%)
• Saturated Fat: 30g
• Carbohydrate (pct. daily diet): 52 (16%)
• Sodium (pct. daily diet): 1,330mg (58%)
The Triple Whopper makes the Quarter Pounder with Cheese seem like health food. At 1,180 calories, it packs more than twice the punch of the McDonald's burger, which has 535 calories. In a statement to 24/7 Wall St., the company referred to the Triple Whopper as an "indulgent option for our guests." Burger King says it encourages customers to eat healthy choices that provide 650 calories or less -- approximately one-third of a 2,000-calorie diet.
10. Wendy's Baconator Double
• Calories (pct. daily diet): 930 (36%)
• Saturated Fat: 25g
• Carbohydrate (pct. daily diet): 41 (13%)
• Sodium (pct. daily diet): 1,840mg (80%)
Who says you can never have too much bacon? Anyone with sense, that's who. Rudd's Munsell noted with amusement how fast food chains "combine every type of meat on one sandwich." The Baconator was relentlessly hyped for a while. A Wendy's spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.