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 the blame for America's obesity crisis on the fast-food industry -- and experts say it is 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 also began changing as women began to increasingly work outside the home. It was at that point that some of the savviest entrepreneurs in American corporate history sprang into action.
McDonald's Corp. (MCD) got in on 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. Today, there are more than 32,000 restaurants under the Golden Arches.
Col. Harlan Sanders began franchising Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1952. Five years later, Sanders began selling chicken in 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 [began] fulfilling its destiny." There are more than 12,500 Burger Kings today. Glen W. Bell Jr. opened the first Taco Bell (YUM) in 1962 with an investment of $4,000 and eventually sold the chain to Pepsico 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.
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, including a whopping 65% of black children and 37% of Hispanic children as of 2007, according to Kids Count. Mothers are working outside the home at much higher rates than in decades past. It is projected that women will account for 46.9% of the labor force in 2018, up from 46.8% in 2018. Add to this mix the high unemployment rates caused by an uncertain economy, and the allure of fast, cheap food becomes hard to resist.
And therein lies the problem.
Obesity is a public health crisis. Obesity rates have tripled among children since 1980. In 2009, only Colorado and the District of Columbia had a prevalence of obesity less than 20%, according to the Centers 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.
The degree to which 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, a registered dietitian and 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 the most unhealthy options in the fast-food universe:items that were the highest in calories, carbohydrates, sodium and saturated fat. We then ranked them against the nutritional guidelines of the United States Department of Agriculture.
A couple of important caveats to consider. Not everything sold at fast food restaurants is unhealthy. The industry aggressively promotes healthier choice on their menus. Subway, for one, makes a special point of doing this, though its foot-long subs are not healthy choices. Moreover, experts point out that many 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, 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 the USDA recommendations. Carbohydrates, saturated fat, and sodium were given the most weight. Calories and protein were also considered.
10. Wendy's Baconator Double
> Calories (pct. daily diet): 930 (36%)
> Saturated Fat: 25g
> Carbohydrate (pct. daily diet): 41 (13%)
> Sodium (pct. daily diet): 1840mg (80%)
Whose says you can never have too much bacon? Anyone with sense, that's who. The Rudd Center'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 (WEN) spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
9. Burger King Triple Whopper with Cheese
> Calories (pct. daily diet): 1180 (45%)
> Saturated Fat: 30g
> Carbohydrate (pct. daily diet): 52 (16%)
> Sodium (pct. daily diet): 1330mg (58%)
The Triple Whopper makes a mere Quarter Pounder with Cheese seem like health food. At 1,140 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 daily diet.
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): 1810 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 foot-long sandwiches are too large, Munsell notes. Subway did not respond to a request for comment.
7. Wendy's Triple
> Calories (pct. daily diet): 1030 (40%)
> Saturated Fat: 28g
> Carbohydrate (pct. daily diet): 43 (18%)
> Sodium (pct. daily diet): 1800mg (78%)
Anyone eating this monstrosity might not realize that the USDA suggests one portion of meat should be roughly the size of deck of cards. This Wendy's monster burger weighs in at a whopping 423 grams. Wendy's 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.
6. Taco Bell XXL Grilled Stuft Burrito Beef
> Calories (pct. daily diet): 880 (34%)
> Saturated Fat: 3g
> Carbohydrate (pct. daily diet): 94 (26%)
> Sodium (pct. daily diet): 2130mg (93%)
Taco Bell has mastered the art of blending meats and cheese in ever more creative caloric combinations. The XXL Grilled Stuft Burrito Beef 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 recently by questions surrounding the quality of its beef.
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): 2020mg (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 notes. Indeed, it ended its Super Size promotion a few years ago, no doubt spurred by the publicity surrounding Morgan Spurlock's Oscar-nominated documentary Super Size Me.
4. Sonic SuperSONIC Bacon Double Cheeseburger with Mayo
> Calories (pct. daily diet): 1370 (53%)
> Saturated Fat: 36g
> Carbohydrate (pct. daily diet): 55 (17%)
> Sodium (pct. daily diet): 1610mg (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 colossus probably shouldn't eat much for the rest of the day. Once a regional operator in the South and Midwest, Sonic (SONC) now operates over 3,500 locations.
3. KFC Chicken Pot Pie
> Calories (pct. daily diet): 790 (30%)
> Saturated Fat: 37g
> Carbohydrate (pct. daily diet): 66 (20%)
> Sodium (pct. daily diet): 1970mg (86%)
Salty and high in calories, there is little positive that can be said about the KFC Chicken Pot Pie. But 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 7 items less than 9 grams of fat."
In other words, diners have a choice about whether or not they eat something with almost a full day's allotment of sodium in one item.
2. Subway 12-inch 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 the "low-fat footlongs" on its web site. 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. However, 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."
1. Pizza Hut Triple Meat Italiano (9-inch personal pizza)
> Calories (pct. daily diet): 1,280 (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 for you. Pizza Hut offers plenty of healthier choices.
Jonathan Berr, Michael B. Sauter
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to reflect corrections to nutritional information for some menu items.