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Healthiest Foods: Subway vs. McDonalds

Do you "eat fresh" or are you "lovin' it"? When it comes to healthy alternatives, there may not be that much difference when it comes to the battle of the bulge. New research shows that most Subway patrons ingest just as much sugar, carbs, sodium, and calories as they do at McDonald's. The research was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

UCLA scientists sent a group of nearly 100 adolescents aged 12 to 21 to eat at McDonald's and Subway restaurants, then collected their receipts to track what they ordered. Using the nutrition information available on each chain's web site, they calculated the nutritional value of what the kids purchased.

While meals at McDonald's averaged 1,083 calories, the Subway meals weren't far behind at 955 calories each. And at 784 calories, the average Subway sandwich purchase came in even higher than those bought at McDonalds, which averaged 582 calories.

– Tracy Miller, New York Daily News

Ultimately, the researchers found no statistically significant difference between the two restaurants and the participants ate too many calories at both.

Of course, the nutritional value of the meal depends on the choices made. While Subway offers a number of 6-inch sandwiches under 500 calories, it also offers selections like its foot long Big Philly Cheesesteak with about 1,000 calories – nearly double the calories of a Big Mac. McDonald's also offers a few healthier selection like its Grilled Chicken Southwest Salad at around 420 calories.

Kathleen Lees was "shocked" to find out Subway might actually be less healthy than McDonald's alternatives. Personal trainer, Kevin Richardson, described the perceived benefits of "healthier" alternatives like Subway as "Healthy Relativity":

The road to perdition is often a gentle one and there is a major flaw in our collective thinking process that leads many of us to stumble down the road to obesity without realizing it. The problem is what I call the theory of Healthy Relativity. It happens when we measure a one food product that is inherently bad for you against another that we perceive as being worse, and choose the former with a certain self assurance that we have made a healthy choice. Sounds familiar? A classic health relativity slip is in choosing a subway sandwich over a Big Mac, since (as they keep on saying), their food is fresh and low fat. However, just because a food is lower in fat, doesn’t make it good for you. (In fact the contrary is usually the case).

Think about the refined white flour in the bread and the alarmingly high sodium content of the processed meats, which, if you stop to think for a second really can’t be fresh at all? When last was meat from an animal killed five or six months ago, then pumped with preservatives considered fresh? Or healthy for that matter? Take a look at the Subway ingredient list and the notion of ‘fresh’ starts getting even more cloudy. ‘Fresh’ cold cuts? ‘Fresh’ chicken patties? ‘Fresh’ egg patties? And my personal favorite, ‘fresh’ canned tuna! Is it just me or did someone over at Subway not take the time to look up the word ‘fresh’ in the dictionary?

The Center for Disease Control lists a number of causes for the growing problem of childhood obesity. Some of the causes related directly to fast food: sugary drinks, less healthy foods, growing advertising of less healthy foods, growing portion sizes. More than 1/3 of U.S. adults are obese, which leads to health problems including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. Obesity is not only a medical problem, it's a financial one. The medical care costs of obesity in the US is nearly $150 billion.

Part of the difficulty in choosing healthier alternatives is the lack of information. The health care law passed in 2010 requires big restaurant chains to post calorie information on menus and drive-thrus. However, until recently, McDonald's did not conveniently lists nutritional information – including calorie count – at its restaurants where people order. The vast majority of fast food restaurants still do not conveniently list nutritional information and some are actively manipulating loop-holes in the law to avoid disclosing this basic information. In order to make an informed decision, customers should have the basic information they need to make healthier choices.

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© Copyright 2013 Brett A. Emison

Follow @BrettEmison on Twitter


  1. Gravatar for Connie

    Why does the fast food industry and food companies add so much salt to the foods? I could not believe how much salt is in most processed foods it is not necessary! Since My husband has high blood pressure making meals has become a nightmare and eating out almost impossible!

  2. Gravatar for sis inferior

    Americans are overweight, lazy, and lack critical thinking skills due in part to your education system which is the worst in the western world. Your awful health care system is hideous and your social skills are akin to that of common primates. Your legal system is a joke though at least half of all yanks seem to think that a capitalist government actually means more freedom. Because you yanks are so poorly educated you believe your modern third-world country is superior; how bloody sad for you. You yanks are nothing better than repressed, uneducated war-mongers with the collective IQ of a rock.

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