Fast food chains have tried for years to woo health-conscious diners by mixing lighter fare like salads with the usual burgers, fried chicken and shakes.
But as menus swelled over the past three decades with grilled chicken wraps (McDonald’s) and “fresco” burritos (Taco Bell), many options grew in size and the calories and sodium in them surged, according to new study from researchers at Boston University and Tufts.
The researchers studied 1,787 entrees, sides and desserts at 10 chains — Arby’s, Burger King, Carl’s Jr., Dairy Queen, Hardee’s, Jack in the Box, KFC, Long John Silver’s, McDonald’s and Wendy’s — from 1986 to 2016. In that time, the number of items in those three categories rose 226 percent.
According to the study — published in The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in February — even with lighter items in the mix, fast food menus are less healthy than they were 30 years ago.
The fat and salt content and the sheer size of fast food meals have long been a public health concern. They are often blamed for pushing up the obesity rate among adults in the United States, which rose to 40 percent in 2016 from 13 percent in the early 1960s.
The new study suggests the problem is getting worse.
Across the 10 chains, the researchers found, the average entree weighed 39 grams more in 2016 than in 1986 and had 90 more calories. It also had 41.6 percent of the recommended daily allotment of sodium, up from 27.8 percent.
Local governments have adopted menu-labeling initiatives that require fast food restaurants to list calorie counts for the items they sell, but such measures have faced substantial opposition, including from the Food and Drug Administration.
“The restaurants really haven’t done enough,” Megan A. McCrory, the lead researcher, said. “The big picture is that there have been some positive changes, but they’re small, and overall, the changes have gotten worse.”
The study mentions several proposals meant to help consumers scale back their fast food intake, including a system that would let them order smaller portions at lower prices.