If you watched the London Olympics last summer, you saw a parade of top athletes touting the nutritional qualities of their favorite eatery: Subway. Watching Apolo Ohno or Robert Griffin III bite into a veggie footlong with avocado or hearing that Subway is “the official training restaurant of athletes everywhere,” you might get the idea that the food served at the chain isn’t that bad for you—that it’s even healthy.
Researchers from the University of California Los Angeles found that despite claims to the contrary, Subway is just as unhealthy as the oft-reviled golden arches of McDonald’s—which long had the most locations in the country of any fast-food chain until Subway surpassed it in 2011.
“Every day, millions of people eat at McDonald’s and Subway, the two largest fast food chains in the world,” Dr. Lenard Lesser—who led the research while a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholar in the department of family medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health—said in the UCLA statement. “With childhood obesity at record levels, we need to know the health impact of kids’ choices at restaurants.”
Lesser, who is now a researcher at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation Research Institute, did so by recruiting 97 adolescents, ages 12 to 21, to purchase meals at McDonald’s and Subway restaurants at a shopping mall in Carson, CA. The young people consumed an average of 1,038 calories at McDonald’s. They consumed an average of 955 calories at Subway—a statistically insignificant difference from McDonald’s. The Institute of Medicine recommends that students consume no more than 850 calories in school lunches.
While total calories were slightly lower at Subway, the average calories per sandwich purchased and sodium content were both higher at Subway. The Subway sandwiches contained an average of 784 calories, versus 572 at McDonald’s. The sodium content at both restaurants was three times higher than the IOM recommended daily dose: 2,149 mg at Subway versus 1,829 mg at McDonald’s.
While the results may surprise the average consumer, they did not catch nutritionist Lisa R. Young off guard. At fast-food restaurants commonly thought to be healthier, Young says customers may even eat worse than they would at a chain thought to be less healthy—a phenomenon known as the “health halo.” Because diners assume they’re eating healthier overall, they may not pay close enough attention to the nutritional content of what they’re ordering. And at the end of the day, Subway and McDonald’s are still fast food.
“I do not recommend fast food if you want to eat healthy,” says Young, author of The Portion Teller’s Diet. “With a few exceptions, fast food is still fast food—high in fat and calories.”
Does it surprise you that Subway is just as unhealthy as McDonald’s?
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Steve’s story about healthy fast food was anthologized in Best Food Writing 2011. His food and general interest stories regularly appear in Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other places. Email Steve | @thebostonwriter