Please tell us you’re as confused by this “healthiest fast food” ranking as we are

Outdoor sign for a combination KFC and Pizza Hut
Photo: Jeffrey Greenberg/Education Images/Universal Images Group (Getty Images)

When it comes to fast food, it’s widely understood that an excess of calories can be lurking anywhere, even (or especially!) in the salads. Not that high calorie counts are nefarious in and of themselves, of course; it’s just that if you’re looking for the “lightest” thing on the menu, it might not be as straightforward as selecting the item with the most vegetables or the word “fresh” in the name. Still, we were surprised to receive a press release this week from wellness website HealthyBeat, which ranked the top 20 “healthiest” fast food chains in America—and found that Little Caesars topped the list.

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Right up front, let’s clarify that “healthiest” in this HealthyBeat list is measured in terms of calorie count, which isn’t a holistic way of assessing the food you eat each day and certainly falls short in terms of measuring actual nutritional content. So, take this data for what you will. The list was compiled by selecting 10 meals from each restaurant’s menu: five “customer favorites” plus “another five at random.” The press release says that “The nutrition team then worked out the average calorie number across all ten meals to rank each fast-food chain.” Pretty simple math, but it’s funny how pizza joints bookend the list, with Little Caesars at the top and Pizza Hut at the very bottom:

Little Caesars, Starbucks, and Dairy Queen top the list, with average calorie counts between 300-400 per menu item. Burger King, Chipotle, and Pizza Hut sit at the bottom, with averages between 1,000-2,000 calories per item. This, of course, might have something to do with the portion sizes of the average Starbucks order vs. the average Chipotle order: even if you select the heftiest sandwich at Starbucks, it’s not going to approach the size of a brawny burrito. Similarly, if you go to Little Caesars’ menu, the calorie count listed for each entire large round pizza (with the exception of thin crust) is between 2400-3000 calories; dividing these by 8 slices each is what leads to that average figure of 304 calories. Thus, this list of “healthy” fast food joints only makes sense if you’re a person who eats one slice of pizza and calls it a meal. (Maybe it’s the same population that chooses to only eat 12 french fries?)

Another interesting takeaway: Panera, which has built a reputation on being a fast casual chain for the health-conscious, hovers just between Sonic and Burger King in terms of calories—which actually makes a lot of sense, because while the restaurant serves lots of salads and lighter fare, the Broccoli Cheddar Soup in a Sourdough Bread Bowl must be a customer favorite, if my own high school spending patterns are any indication.

So, what is this list really measuring? Maybe it’s just the amount of calories we typically consume depending on the occasion? Starbucks’ menu, for example, is full of quick, on-the-go bites to appeal to morning commuters—things that power you through the day rather than put you to sleep. Little Caesars, meanwhile, provides an almost militaristically uniform menu of $5 takeaway pizzas of identical size and comparable heft, a reliable option designed to be split with a few friends. Dairy Queen, also near the top, might be where you grab a dessert after a meal you’ve already eaten elsewhere. All of these functions place a natural cap on the calorie count, and don’t really speak to the “value” of a Blizzard versus the Detroit Double Pepperoni. But these lists are still interesting, in that they make us momentarily consider the what, where, when, and why of our own meal selections—and about how almost any data can be spun as a positive or a negative, depending on what you’re being sold.

Marnie Shure is editor in chief of The Takeout.

DISCUSSION

biscuittin
BiscuitTin

What a flawed way to measure "healthy"  imo it's less about calorie account as it is offering alternatives.  Wendy's and others offer lettuce wrapped burgers that wouldn't factor into something like this but it's a good option to have. I just wish there was a good french fry alternative at places but I'm not so sure a little cup of steamed vegetables or the like would be too popular.