Can you really go into a Subway, which calls itself the “healthy” fast food restaurant, and eat a healthy meal? UCLA researchers found that Subways may not be a much healthier alternative to McDonald’s for teenagers and young adults.

In their study, which was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, the investigators found that when adolescents and young adults bought Subway meals they consumed more-or-less the same number of calories as those purchased at McDonald’s. They added that meals at both restaurants probably contribute to the country’s obesity epidemic.

Fast food restaurants are known to be major contributors to America’s ever-growing heart disease and diabetes epidemic in the U.S.A. Nearly one in every four people in the USA goes to a fast food restaurant at least twice a week. Most fast food restaurants serve foods that are high in fat, sugar, and salt – which all contribute to heart disease.

Team leader, Dr. Lenard Lesser, 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:

“Every day, millions of people eat at McDonald’s and Subway, the two largest fast food chains in the world. With childhood obesity at record levels, we need to know the health impact of kids’ choices at restaurants.”

The study involved 97 people aged from 12 to 21 years. They were asked to buy meals at Subway and McDonald’s restaurants at a shopping mall in Carson, California. They ate in each restaurant from 3pm to 5pm on different days. They were not given money to pay for their meals (they paid out of their own pockets).

The team checked what each participant ate by looking at their cash register receipts, and estimated how many calories were consumed from data at the restaurants’ websites.

According to their findings, the teenagers and young adults purchased meals containing..:

  • 1,038 calories at McDonald’s
  • 955 calories at Subway

Lesser, who now works as a researcher at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation Research Institute, said “We found that there was no statistically significant difference between the two restaurants, and that participants ate too many calories at both.”

According to the US Institute of Medicine (IoM), school lunches should contain no more than 850 calories each, and an adolescent’s daily consumption of food and drink should not exceed 2,400 calories per day.

The study also revealed that (according to the cashier receipts of the participants):

    At Subway

  • Sandwiches contained an average of 784 calories
  • Drinks contained an average of 61 calories
  • Adding extra items, such as French fries and potato chips added an average of 35 calories to the meal
  • 102 grams of carbohydrates were consumed at each meal
  • Meals contained 36 grams of sugar
  • Meals contained 41 grams of protein
  • Sodium intake averaged 2,149 mg at each meal
  • At McDonald’s

  • Sandwiches contained an average of 572 calories
  • 128 grams of carbohydrates were consumed at each meal
  • Adding extra items, such as French fries and potato chips added an average of 201 calories to the meal
  • Drinks contained an average of 151 calories
  • Meals contained 54 grams of sugar
  • Meals contained 32 grams of protein
  • Sodium intake averaged 1,829 mg at each meal

Lesser said:

“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.”

Subway’s processed meats are to blame for its high sodium content, the researchers believe. They added that processed meats overall are linked to cardiovascular disease, cancer and obesity/overweight.

The investigators did not track the participants’ food intake for the rest of the day, so it was not possible to determine whether they compensated for the excess calories at the two restaurants. The volunteers were also from a specific geographical area of Los Angeles and were mainly of Asian descent or mixed race/ethnicity, therefore, their buying patterns might not be representative of the country as a whole.

Lesser recommends that teenagers and young adults:

  • drop French fries and sugary drinks from their meals at McDonald’s
  • opt for smaller subs with less meat, while doubling the amount of vegetables at Subway

A report published in February 2013 by the NCHS (National Center for Health Statistics), part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, informed that from 2007 to 2010, American adults on average consumed 11.3% of their total daily calories from fast foods.

Obesity rates have remained steady for the first time in three decades, according to a report by Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation published in August 2013.

Written by Christian Nordqvist