Harvard researcher suggests we eat fast-food combos sans sauce, soda, toppings, or joy

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Today I feel a level of fast-food melancholy I have not experienced since my discovery that the USDA defines a serving of French fries as a paltry 12 fries. My Eeyore mood is all thanks to a new study in the Journal Of Preventive Medicine titled “Calorie and Nutrient Profile of Combination Meals at U.S. Fast Food and Fast Casual Restaurants.” The objective of the study, led by Kelsey A. Vercammen of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, was to assess the nutritional value of fast-food combo meals, and suggest ways they could make healthier.

The takeaway? Combo meals would be much healthier if we ordered them without toppings, sauce, soda, or any other component that brings us joy.

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After analyzing nutritional data from 34 fast-food chains, researchers found the average combo meal—if ordered without modifications—contains 1,193 calories, with saturated fat, sodium, and sugar content well above recommended levels. As Vercammen told Reuters Health, customers could vastly cut those levels if we simply ordered our combo meals with plain water, and removed toppings and dipping sauces from entrees. That would leave us with roughly a water and a cheeseless, sauceless burger. Can we still have the fries, please? I’m begging you.

Vercammen told Reuters these “realistic customer modifications” could have dramatic results in terms of the meal’s nutritional content, noting the highest-calorie-possible combo meals have on average 500 more calories than the standard combo meal. Giving up a soda might not be hard for some people, but a cheeseless burger? A chicken sandwich with no sauce? Nuggets without their dipping side kick?

Part of what makes fast food so appealing to many, besides its convenience, is its comfort-food factor. Somewhere buried in our American brains is the flavor memory of exactly what a Whopper or a Double-Double tastes like. Take away the special sauce, and why even bother? Many Americans are trying to make healthier food choices, and more power to them, but if I’m going to eat a plain beef patty with a water, I think I’d rather have a salad.

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About the author

Kate Bernot

Kate Bernot is managing editor at The Takeout and a certified beer judge.