Fast casual restaurants like Chipotle are often praised for their ingredient transparency and dedication to health, but it turns out some dishes are no better nutritionally than, say, a McDonald's Big Mac.
A new study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reveals that fast-casual restaurants pack more calories per entree than fast food restaurants. For 28 fast-casual chains, the average entree clocked in at 760 calories. For 34 fast food chains, the average entree was 561 calories.
That's a 200-calorie difference, which is equivalent to four Chicken McNuggets.
Researchers hypothesize the disparity is due to the plethora of add-on options available at many fast-casual joints, Men's Health reported. (Think: guac, sour cream, cheese, salsa and the like.) Luckily, you can opt out of these toppings if you want to avoid extra calories, lead study author Danielle Schoffman told Men's Health.
Sadly, Americans can't help but pig out at Chipotle.
According to an analysis from the New York Times, the typical American orders 1,070 calories worth of food at Chipotle. That represents a pretty standard burrito order with cheese, sour cream, rice and beans. In one meal, a Chipotle customer could potentially eat more than their daily recommend calories.
And restaurants don't make it so easy to eat light. One in 10 Chipotle orders packed more than 1,600 calories, according to the the New York Times analysis. To keep your meal to a modest 550 calories, you might opt for a veggie bowl or carnitas burrito with just salsa and no other add-ons — but that's tough.
Orders from McDonald's that are under 550 calories include: a Big Mac, a cheeseburger, a grilled onion cheddar burger, the Southern Style Crispy Chicken Sandwich, the McChicken, a quarter pounder with cheese and a double cheeseburger.
Of course, these McDonald's calorie counts don't account for sauces, sodas or a side of fries. A small order of fries (no ketchup) clocks in at 230 calories, but the impact those spuds have on your health is what you should really be worried about. Research shows increased consumption of french fries alone is liked to roughly 3.5 pounds of weight gain over a four-year period, the New York Times reported.
But obsessing over calories isn't a great weight loss strategy.
The calories in an order of french fries (or that burrito or Big Mac) aren't what makes a certain order bad or good for consumers — it's the quality of those calories.
"Different foods are metabolized differently, absorbed differently, converted into fat or energy differently and raise or lower your risk for disease differently," Dr. David Ludwig, a professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, told Time. He noted that dieters who are preoccupied with calories should instead focus on slow-digesting foods that will keep them fuller longer. The key to satiety? Natural fats, Dr. Ludwig said. (Score one for guac lovers.)
The bottom line: With great power comes great responsibility. No matter if you choose fast-casual or fast food joints, add-ons can pack on the calories.