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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

South Carolina Researchers Find Fast Casual Restaurant Entrées Have More Calories than Fast Food Counterparts

While Arnold School of Public Health doctoral candidate Ms. Danielle Schoffman (health promotion, education, and behavior (HPEB) at the University of South Carolina) was working on her dissertation research related to how mobile technology can improve health communication, physical activity and healthy eating within families, she observed a pattern. When she encouraged families to reduce their fast-food consumption, they often asked her whether restaurants like Panera BreadTM and ChipotleTM count as fast food.

Danielle Schoffman
[Photo: Ms. Danielle Schoffman]

Restaurants like these are part of a growing segment of the restaurant industry known as “fast casual” where patrons do not receive full table service but expect higher quality food with fewer processed or frozen ingredients when compared to more traditional fast food options, such as Burger KingTM or Taco BellTM. Customers might assume corresponding health benefits by choosing food from fast casual over fast food, but there is limited research on this new trend in dining.

After noting the uncertainty among her research participants, Ms. Schoffman realized the need for scientific research on the topic to learn more about the nutritional truth behind general assumptions about which options are healthiest. Inspired by a lessons-learned article on the Paper Chase approach (i.e., researchers work together to bring a study from concept to manuscript during a brief, but intense, time period), Ms. Schoffman found the perfect vehicle for conducting a study on the topic.

Together with mentor and assistant professor of HPEB Dr. Brie Turner-McGrievy and the other members* of Dr. Turner-McGrievy’s Behavioral Research in Eating (BRIE) lab, Ms. Schoffman set up two 12-hour periods for the team to efficiently and intensely work together to develop the manuscript. Prior to the writing sessions, the researchers conducted literature searches and analyzed the calorie content of 3,193 entrees at 34 fast-food and 28 fast-casual restaurants. The findings surprised them.

The team learned that the average meal at a fast casual restaurant contains 200 more calories than a typical fast food meal (averaging 760 calories per entrée vs 561, respectively). Further, fast casual restaurants also have more high-calorie options on their menus, with a greater proportion of the entrees exceeding 640 calories per entrée, than the fast food restaurants. The team then wrote the manuscript during a condensed time period — rather than over several months, which is typically the case with manuscript development. They were able to leverage their collective experience with nutritional research to make certain sections move faster.

“While the two days we spent together writing were intense, it was a really rewarding experience,” says Ms. Schoffman. “It was incredibly motivating to see how much we could accomplish as a team in a short period of time, and it was a unique opportunity to see each other’s writing processes in action and be able to feed off of one another’s energy and ideas in real time.”

Dr. Turner-McGrievy agrees. “This process proved to be an excellent way to mentor students in writing manuscripts,” she says of the rich interactive environment.

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