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Subway food not much 'healthier' than McDonalds, study finds

Norman Byrd's picture

As far as Subway restaurants having "healthier" food than McDonald's, a recent study suggests that there is "no statistically significant difference between the two restaurants."

A study out of UCLA would seem to contra-indicate one of the key assertions made by Subway restaurants in their national ads -- that eating at their establishments is far healthier than eating at other fast food chains (like, say, McDonald's). In fact, Science Daily reports that research indicates that eating at Subway restaurants is nearly comparable to eating at McDonald's, at least among adolescents.

You can bet McDonald's is just "lovin'" this latest study...

In results published in the May 6 issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health, research showed that young people consumed nearly as many calories when purchasing meals at Subway restaurants as they did when buying meals from McDonald's.

Dr. Lenard Lesser, then the lead researcher in the department of family medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, said of the study: "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."

Subway surpassed McDonald's in 2012 as having the most outlets worldwide, therefore becoming the largest restaurant chain on the planet.

"We found that there was no statistically significant difference between the two restaurants, and that participants ate too many calories at both," Lesser summarized. He now does research for the Palo Alto Medical Foundation Research Institute.

Keeping in mind that the Institute of Medicine recommends that school lunches not exceed 850 calories daily (out of a 2,400-calorie per day total), when adolescents spending their own money and making lunch selections at Subway and McDonald's were tracked, it was found that:

  • The average Subway sandwich purchased contained 784 calories on average, while the average McDonald's sandwich contained 572.
  • Sugary drinks purchased at Subway averaged 61 calories. At McDonald's, they averaged 151 calories.
  • When purchasing side items (like French fries or potato chips), Subway customers added another 35 calories on average to their total intake, while those at McDonald's added 201 calories on average.

The study also found that other totals were comparable as well:

  • In carbohydrates consumed: 102 grams at Subway; 128 grams at McDonald's.
  • Amount of sugar per meal averaged: 36 grams at Subway; 54 grams at McDonald's.
  • Amount of protein per meal on average: 41 grams at Subway; 32 grams at McDonald's.
  • Level of sodium intake averaged: 2,149 mg at Subway; 1,829 mg at McDonald's.

For the record, the daily minimum requirement recommended for sodium intake, according to, is 500 mg, the maximum less than 2,300 mg. Given the study's totals, eating at both restaurants for lunch would call for nearly a totally salt-free breakfast and dinner so as not to exceed the limits (an even worse scenario for those with high blood pressure, whose sodium intake should be less -- like 800 mg per day less than the average recommended amount).

So what does this information tell us? It would seem to indicate that although Subway restaurants push a "healthier" food image, their food isn't that much "healthier" than McDonald's and that, given individual tastes for sandwich, drink, and side order(s) selection, becomes comparable to the burger giant's -- or, as the study puts it, shows "no statistically significant difference."

Lesser says that there are several things that can be done to alter the caloric intake and make the selections healthier. At McDonald's, he suggests not ordering fries or the sugary drink. At Subway, which he says has a slightly higher "nutrient profile" than McDonald's, he suggests doubling up on the veggies, cutting back on the meat, and ordering smaller sandwiches.

(Read: Study: Countries with most fast food restaurants have highest obesity rates.)

Of course, there is another option -- choosing not to eat at either restaurant and opting for lunch items high in protein, low in calories, sugar, and sodium. Seeing as how that would cut into the world's two largest chains' profits, that's an option neither would be "lovin'."

(photo credit: Terence Ong, Creative Commons)

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